When I first started reading the assigned passage for exegesis, I wondered to myself, "What makes these verses into a unit?" Of course, one can pretty much randomly choose any two line numbers to start and end with and have a fair chance of coming up with interesting exegetical material, and even a contrived if meaningful reason why these line numbers delineate a (fairly) independently exegetable unit. So I wondered, what contrived or non-contrived explanation makes this into an independent unit for exegesis?
This is the answer I came up with: Mark 12:35 specifically puts Jesus into a static location, the Temple. Previously in Mark, we are told that Jesus is walking into the Temple (11:27), and just after this passage, we are told that he came out of the Temple (13:1). It seems implied then, that the time in between was spent in the Temple. The explicit statement of that fact draws our attention, especially by its redundancy, to a specific unit of text.
I must ask, "Why does Mark say that Jesus taught ‘in the temple,’ instead of just ‘Jesus taught?’" Why is Mark calling our attention to the physical space? My answer to this question conforms to the themes with which I will read this passage.
I will read this as a passage that teaches about the correct valuation of the greatness of things, and the Temple is the first of those things that will have its valuation turned over by this passage. This will happen at the very end of the passage, and gives it an elliptical form. Since I will address the end at the end, meanwhile immerse in the middle…
"How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David," Jesus asks (Mark 12:35). He quotes a psalm, and ends, "David himself calls him Lord; so how is he his son?" (Mk 12:37) It is clear to me that Jesus is saying the scribes are wrong, and the Christ is not who they think he is. One would not expect an ancestor to call his descendant Lord, anymore than one would expect a father to genuflect to his son. Thus it would appear that the Christ is not the son of David. This is certainly a new understanding about the identity of the messiah. Furthermore, it seems to be an elevating understanding – the Christ is so much elevated that even David the king calls him Lord. The meaning of Christ, or anointed one, is greatly raised.
But now we are confronted with the first apparent paradox of the text. After all, this is very confusing to us as readers, who have seen Jesus, whom we know to be the Christ in the story, called the son of David (10:47). Is he or isn’t he? The effect of this confusion is to lift readers like me out of the immediate situation; I confront it with what I know from the rest of the text. John Painter suggests that this paradox is an indication of the paradoxical nature of Jesus Christ himself – man, God, human, divine, related to David through a father who took no part in his conception, etc (Painter 168). Apparent paradoxes are a recurring theme in this text, and they function as a second teaching tool. The first teaching tool is the lecture directed towards the inside audience of the text, the crowd and the disciples. The second teaching tool is directed towards the outside readers of the text, who learn through disequilibrium about the nature and value of things. Here we learn about the complex and puzzling nature of the Christ.
The next line presents a new paradox to the outside reader, and once again forces me out of the passage itself. "The great throng heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37). On the surface, this again seems clear cut. The people appreciate and enjoy Jesus’ speech. Yet, of the three synoptic gospels, only Mark includes this line. So I ask, "how does this line serve the themes I identified earlier?" On the level of the outside reader, it too is confusing; I know that in the end of the story, the great throng will cheerfully let Jesus die. So what does it mean that they are now listening to him gladly? If I realize that this is the same description that Mark gave about the way Herod listened to John the Baptist, even though he later killed him, this disequilibrium will also lead me to new insight (Painter 501). So I flip back to where all of this takes place, and learn that when "[Herod] heard [John the Baptist], he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly" (Mk 6:20) If I assimilate the two situations, I understand that although the crowd enjoyed, it was probably also perplexed. Furthermore, I can extrapolate that the messages of evaluation and devaluation that Jesus is transmitting may not be effectively reaching the ears of his listeners. Telford suggests that this part of the passage focuses the reader on the identity of Jesus (Telford 383). That is true for both the inside and the outside reader. For the outside reader, the paradox that Mark presents can also teach us that the best time for knowing and understanding Jesus is after his crucifixion and resurrection.
Now we return to Jesus’ teachings. He instructs the people to beware of the scribes, and describes their disgraceful activities. This clearly fits into the first theme I identified – it is a devaluation of the scribes and of the institution of scribe-hood, directed towards the inside reader. For an outside reader, again, it calls us to a seeming discontinuity within the text. Did Jesus not say to a scribe, just before the beginning of this passage, that because of his wisdom he was "not far from the kingdom of God?"(Mk 12:34) I suggest that Mark is indeed calling our attention back to that particular scribe, who says something that is very significant for understanding the last section of this passage. This unnamed scribe agrees with Jesus’ teachings on the most important commandments, and adds that these commandments are "much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices"(Mk 23:34).
Keeping this in mind, we then proceed to another narrative interlude. Mark tells us that Jesus then "sat down opposite the treasury"(Mk 12:41). Then, a "poor widow came and put in two proper coins" (Mk 12:42). The poor widow immediately recalls us to what Jesus has said about the treatment of poor widows at the hands of the scribes. The lesson that Jesus here imparts is also very nice, and significantly it completes the thought that the unnamed scribe began. Here, I contend, Jesus is redefining sacrifice, as he earlier redefined messiah-hood. This poor widow, giving "her whole living," is fulfilling what the scribe spoke about (Mk 12:44). He did the talking, and she is doing the action, thus giving proof to what Jesus said about the scribes and explaining why the he said that the scribe was only "not far" from the kingdom of heaven – faint praise. (Mk 12:34). For the inside readers, the disciples, this elevates the widow, especially in contrast to the scribes. It also elevates the concept of giving to the level of sacrifice as the Temple. For us, the outside readers, we realize that Jesus is making a new model for sacrifice – one that makes the Temple, as the site of burnt offerings, obsolete. Here at last is the closing of the ellipse – the Temple is no longer highly valued because it has been replaced by something that is, as the scribe says, more important than all the burnt offerings. In the very next line, Jesus will leave the Temple (Mk 13:1).
In conclusion, Mark uses the dialogue of Jesus and his own narration to educate the reader on two levels. The first is the same lessons of Jesus that were, according to the Gospel, available to his contemporary listeners. The second layer is added through the narration of Mark through the use of paradox; Mark demands that the reader find or learn what is not explicitly said. The two methods of teaching work together to teach about the new values that Jesus is teaching as well as the very nature of Jesus Christ.
Painter, John. Mark’s Gospel. London: Routledge, 1997.
Synopsis of the Four Gospels. Trans. Kurt Aland. Ed. Kurt Aland. USA: United Bible Societies, 1982.
Telford, W.R. The Theology of Mark. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 1999.