Because the religious leaders have determined to put an end to Jesus yet fear to do so directly, their public strategy is to continue putting him to the test. Two stories sum up the attacks from various camps, a third marks a turning of the tables, and a fourth story shows Jesus on the offensive. The section ends with a strong critique of the religious system, represented by the “scribes” who have attacked him.
Pharisees and Herodians collaborate to spring the first trap. As in 3:6, it is ironic that they are working together; more so given the question they ask, as they are, in theory if not in practice, on two sides of the issue. “Is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or not pay” (12:14-15)? While the Pharisees would not have withheld tax, for fear of repercussions, they were certainly not as politically chummy with Rome as the Herodians. They would have detested the Roman sovereignty that the tax implied and avoided even handling the coins used to pay it. The graven image of Caesar and the claims of his divinity and priesthood that the denarius featured would have been beyond offensive to the Pharisees.
The trap is simple enough. If Jesus says no, then he is guilty of inciting insurrection and can be arrested, tried, and executed. If he says yes, then he loses the popular support that is keeping his opponents from having him arrested, tried, and executed. It is clear by the phrasing of their question, as well as their flattery, that they are after one of these two direct, clearcut answers. Jesus’ answer, however, is famously deft-- neither yes nor no. “The things that are Caesar’s, pay back to Caesar; and the things that are God’s, to God” (12:17). The simple irony of this phrasing is that he avoids taking a position while seeming to say yes to those who want to hear yes, and no to those who want to hear no. This is because the point of the saying is to place the burden of decision on the hearers. We must decide what is God’s and what is Caesar’s.
While this keeps Jesus out of hot water for the moment, we should not forget that the context of this saying is Jesus’ proclamation as king of another kingdom. The question Jesus implies is: Where does your allegiance lie? This is not sup- posed to be a simple, once-off teaching about all taxes for all times. Yet, spoken within the reign of an emperor who claimed sovereignty and demanded tax by virtue of his divine right--even to the point of proclaiming his divinity on the very coinage used to pay tax--Jesus’ words are a strong challenge to make some practical choices about who is king and who is God.
Next, the Sadducees take a shot. The point of their absurd hypothetical situation is precisely that it is absurd. The resurrection, in their minds, is a farcical notion that creates
silly situations, and their question is therefore intended to ridicule Jesus (whom they apparently know to believe in the resurrection). On the other hand, from the perspective of a believer in the resurrection who has lost a spouse and re- married, it is not a bad question: How does marriage pan out in the resurrection? Thankfully, Jesus does not just dismiss their rather sassy query, even though they really do not want an answer. His reply has three facets. One, their problem is that they “know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (12:24).
This way of putting it challenges us as well, not least as readers of Mark. Some err on the side of power, and some err on the side of Scripture. Jesus says we must know both to understand God’s revelation. Two, he answers the question they do not believe can be answered. With the resurrection, there is a change in our way of existing that precludes marriage. We don’t have to understand everything that means in order to appreciate the essential answer: none will be married. Three, he answers the real question behind the question:Yes, there is a resurrection. How do we know? God would not have introduced himself as the God of dead men. Jesus is clearly using this as an argument for the resurrection, and it is equally clear that the patriarchs have not yet been raised from the dead. God’s self-identification, then, implies the promise of resurrection. The patriarchs have not ceased to be; they will live once more, and God is therefore still their God.
The third story proceeds directly from the resurrection debate. Although there is a certain sense of the scribe being impressed with Jesus’ response about the resurrection (“having seen that he answered them well”), there is also a challenge in the question. Jesus has claimed to know the Scriptures by asserting that the Sadducees do not, and he has answered them by quoting from the Torah. The scribe therefore says, in effect, “Very well, then, how profound is your grasp of the law? What sums it up?” Jesus answers with the famous dual quotation, which he binds together with the pronouncement, “There is no other command greater than these” (12:31). The scribe attempts to assume the position of authority in the exchange by passing judgement on Jesus’ answer, but Jesus ultimately judges the scribe in relation to the kingdom.
It is important to realize that all of these conversations are taking place around the temple. This section is continuous with the previous one, as the religious authorities now seek to undo the Messianic authority with which Jesus had “shut down” the temple. This takes place with the temple itself as the backdrop, accentuating the parallel between the hypocrisy of the religious system and that of the religious leaders who flatter Jesus yet seek to snare him by any means necessary.
The story about the “first” command signifies a culmination. This is the ultimate question in a string of “tests.” Therefore, the phrase “no one dared to ask him any more” (12:34) marks the turning of the tables. He has answered well, avoided the traps and challenges of his adversaries, and demonstrated his authority. There is nothing left to ask him, for he fully comprehends the meaning of the law and the prophets.
Thus, in the fourth and final story of the series, it is Jesus who asks the question. For the first time in the whole Gospel, Jesus now explicitly pushes the listeners to reconsider their assumptions about the Messiah’s nature and identity. Can the Messiah be merely a descendent of David and also David’s “lord” in David’s own lifetime? As ever, Jesus is disinterested in spelling out the mystery of his identity. It is enough to point it out.
The section ends with a direct critique of the religious leaders’ pretense. In this case, Jesus refers to the scribes in particular, as they have been on the attack. His accusation is that they are all about ego and positional authority. Yet, they “devour widows’ houses and, as a pretext, say long prayers” (12:40). Even if this phrase refers to a specific practice (which is unknown), the reference to widows evokes the biblical prophetic tradition that critiques the religious establishment’s neglect and oppression of the poor and marginal, who are often represented as “the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.” The essential contention is that these religious leaders use their “spirituality” abusively for personal gain. They are hypocrites in the worst sense of the word.
This is followed, ironically, by the story of a widow. She is the counterpoint in every way. Not only is she the quintessential poor person, subject to the socio-economically powerful and liable to be the victim of the very ones Jesus has just warned about, she is also the embodiment of true spirituality, marked by the selflessness that is characteristic of Jesus’ teaching about the cross. The story is not really about measuring the relative value of offerings but about making the contrast between the widow and those who would devour her house. She trusts God to vindicate her life, and so she gives all she has to live on. Her offering is actually that of faith.
In addition to the sustained critique of false spirituality and abuses of religious power, which we have already identified as good news--both to the victims and to all those who would truly love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength--there is another facet of the gospel that comes to the surface especially in this section. Jesus is astonishing in his wisdom and in- sight. The reader is able to admire the stunning way in which he outwits his most cunning foes. They intend to attack him but are simply rebuffed by the power of his teaching. His answers cause one to laugh with delight as his brilliance and rhetorical skill shine forth. His authority is an implicit force that cannot be infringed upon, and he is wonderful to behold. This is our Messiah, full of the knowledge of God, incomparable in understanding, abounding in discernment. He is king and sage. We must not underestimate or underplay the evangelistic power of just witnessing Jesus in these stories. Again, be careful how you read.