Summary: Mark wrote nothing by accident in his gospel. Just prior to the arrest of Jesus, he presents a stark contrast between those who think they have it all and those who have nothing. Which group is which? The answer may surprise you.
As we begin this portion of Mark 12, Jesus has just finished his series of debates with the religious leaders. They’re done, but Jesus isn’t. He came to Jerusalem to first proclaim His hostile takeover—retaking for God the thing man had conformed to his own image. He proclaimed that Judaism as they knew it was to be withered from the root and overturned like a mountain thrown into the sea. The way for the Gentiles to approach God, which had been polluted by man, was reopened by Jesus as He entered the Temple and threw out the money changers. He further showed His absolute dominance of the situation by completely handling the theological, social, and political questions thrown at him by the leaders of this corrupted system.
Jesus is setting up for a showdown between Himself and mankind for supremacy. Satan is betting on humanity and wants to defeat Jesu,s so he influences the religious leaders to do more of what they already want to do—and that is commit evil acts while looking pure and holy. The odd thing about this showdown at high noon is that Jesus will actually appear to lose, though in the end He wins it all.
But today we get to see the contrast between the men in charge of this current kingdom (or at least they think they are in charge) and who will be a part of the new King’s kingdom.
38 – 40
In the just previous few verses Jesus had told one particular scribe that he was not far from the kingdom as he was honest and open about his question and enjoyed a healthy exchange with Jesus. But as I said then, just knowing the truth doesn’t make you a part of God’s kingdom any more than knowing the truth of penicillin makes you better when you are sick—you have to take it, just as you have to relinquish your soul to King Jesus.
In general, the scribes were legends in their own minds. Matthew’s gospel has an elongated version of this speech as Jesus proclaimed 7 “woes” against the religious leaders. Mark records a short version of it, but the effect is the same: He will have no part with them and will not submit to them. The long robes they wore (of white linen to symbolize purity) were supposed to be used only for religious activities, but they took to wearing them everywhere because it singled them out as something holy and special to man. We need to be careful about parading our spirituality and position in Christ around so that people are impressed with us.
They wanted to be “up front” at church and at special occasions. They wanted to be seen—the show was the most important thing. So while they playacted the part of holy and respectful, their real intentions were evil. As the lawyers of Israel, scribes were often given trust of women’s dowries when they were widowed. Instead of protecting the money they stole it. Scribes weren’t paid for their service and it was considered a good thing to give to a scribe. They, however, abused that position to extort money from anyone they could.
Even their prayers were just for show. Instead of a conversation with God, they were lines in a play designed to impress others. God was not impressed and looks not at the outward appearance of a man, but at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7 – at the anointing of David). Notice the contrast too with the most important commandments—to love God and love others. They did neither. I also find it interesting that Mark hooks together in one sentence the idea of devouring widow’s houses and long prayers. It’s like they are so bent on evil that they show off how much they can get away with. They feel they are worthy of so much, but Jesus now shows by contrast what is really worth something in His kingdom.
41 – 44
Jesus now moved probably from the Court of the Gentiles to the Court of the Women near where the Temple treasury was located. In this walkway stood 13 trumpet-shaped boxes: 7 for deposit of the temple tax and six for free will offerings. During Passover a large amount of money would come into the temple coffers. In the midst of the clatter of many coins being poured into the boxes Jesus spies a poor widow. I wonder if hers is one of the houses that the scribes “devoured”.
Without family or a protector, widows could find themselves destitute. She places in two coins into the box as a free will gift. The coins, known as lepton (two would be lepta) were worth one 64th of a denarius—one day’s wages (maybe about 10 minutes wages on a 12 hour day). We don’t know how Jesus knew she was a widow. Luke (Luke 21:1-4) also tells us that she gave everything she had.