Chapter 5: In Jerusalem Before The Passion

The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton

Chapter 5: In Jerusalem Before The Passion

1. Before the teaching begins, 11:1-25

a. The entry on a donkey, 11:1-l1

This entrance into the city is an act of conscious and profound symbolism. Some commentators have compared the entry, the cleansing of the temple, and the last supper to the symbolic gestures of the Old Testament prophets. We are reminded of Jeremiah (Chapter 19) breaking a bottle before his people to symbolize the "breaking" of Jerusalem which he had predicted. The event here has been carefully planned by Jesus, and it may be that the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 is in his mind. Mark does not refer to this prophecy, though Matthew does in 21:4-5.

It is not so certain that the crowd understands this entry as messianic. The quotation from Psalm 118:26 in verse 9 was employed as a greeting for any pilgrim coming to a religious festival; verse 10 does refer specifically to the messianic kingdom, but the people probably have in mind the popular political hope. Perhaps Jesus chose this mode of entry to reveal the nature of his messiahship to those prepared to see it, and to conceal it from the rest.

We are in the midst of a scene of considerable tension. The crowd seems aware of some sort of impending crisis; the disciples are bewildered but following along; the authorities are prepared to strike at any moment; and in the midst of it all is a solitary, determined, and no doubt sorrowful, figure determined to press through to the end.

Verse 11 makes ready for the cleansing of the temple. Jesus apparently stays at Bethany from Sunday to Wednesday of the last week.

b. The cursing of the fig tree, 11:12-14

This is a difficult story, not merely because it is a nature miracle, but because of the rather petulant picture it draws of Jesus, withering a tree because it was not bearing fruit several months before its normal time. Probably the best explanation is that originally this was in the form of a parable, describing Israel as a withered tree that no longer bears fruit (see Luke 13:6-9). But in the process of oral transmission it became transformed into a narrative of an actual historical event. Mark puts the story here, in any case, to point to the coming events as decisive proof of the barrenness of the old Israel.

c. The cleansing of the temple, 11:15-19

Jesus now enters into the forecourt of the temple (sometimes called the court of the Gentiles, for it was the only place the non-Jew was allowed to pray). He drove out the officials who sold purified birds for animal sacrifices and the money-changers who exchanged (at a good profit for the priests) the popular Roman money for the Jewish coin which alone could be used for the temple dues. The action is more than that of a religious reformer protesting against corruption. It is also an act of messianic symbolism for those able to understand. In Malachi 3:1 we read: ". . . the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts." So here the cleansing is a symbol of the coming of God's new covenant in the person of his chosen Messiah. Notice that Jesus does not hesitate to use force to accomplish his purpose. How does this action fit in with Jesus' words about nonresistance to evil in Matthew 5:39 and love of enemies in Matthew 5:43-44?

 d. the fig tree -- results; and sayings on prayer and faith, 11:20-25

Verses 20-21 present the conclusion to the fig-tree incident. To this, Mark has attached a loose collection of Jesus' sayings. The context is unfortunate. Doubtless Jesus had often spoken of faith in God, but as a response to the cursing and withering of the tree, the saying in verses 22-23 takes on a trivial flavor. Of course, Verse 23 is not meant to be taken literally. This is simply a way of saying that with faith in God men can perform what seems impossible. Verse 25 reflects a knowledge of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:14) and suggests that it was known in some form in Rome in the 70's.

 2. teaching in Jerusalem, 11:27-13:37

a. A series of questions from the Pharisees and others, 11:27-12:34

The apparent purpose of this series of questions was to trap Jesus into a premature and public avowal of his messiahship, and thus into an act of blasphemy for which he could be arrested.

 1. What is your authority?, 11:27-33

The priests, the teachers, and the high-ranking members of Sanhedrin or ruling court confront Jesus. Their question is a menacing one, not for information. Jesus replies by asking question, about John the Baptist. Was God with John or they said no, the people who liked John would be offended. If said yes, they'd have to admit that God was inspiring Jesus well.

2. Parenthetical story of the wicked tenants, 12:1-12

This can be read both as a forthright advance accusation against the Pharisees as murderers (12:7-8), and also as a prediction of the rejection by God of the Jews (verses 9-10). The story becomes vivid when we make a few identifications in the allegory: the vineyard is Israel; the owner is God; the tenants are the Jews; the Servants are the prophets and perhaps John the Baptist; the son is Christ.

3. May God's people pay tribute to a worldly state?, 12:13-17

This incident refers to a poll tax which all Jews under Roman occupation had to pay. After the somewhat obvious flattery of verse 14, they put the question to him. It was probably a burning question, for some of the extreme Jewish nationalists were against the tax, though the Pharisees on the whole supported it. A "no" would have given the Jews a chance to portray Jesus to the Romans as seditious; a clear "yes" would have had a bad popular effect on the ordinary man. Jesus' answer refers to this particular issue, and cannot be taken as a general guide to all the problems of political responsibility. Jesus was no revolutionary; the tax was only twenty cents a year; the coin is Caesar's anyway -- why not him have it! Other situations might arise when giving Caesar what is his might compromise allegiance to God, but this is not one of them. In such cases, "We must obey God rather than men" Acts 5:29) would represent a part of the truth that needed stressing. A good political ethic should have both Jesus' word here, and the word from Acts.

4. Do the dead rise?, 12:12-27

Sadducees were priestly aristocrats, quite conservative, rejecting many of the theological innovations, like belief in the resurrection of the body, which the Pharisees affirmed. To understand the challenge here, we should refer to Deuteronomy 25:5 where the law of levirate marriage is set down: if a man dies without children, his brother must marry the widow. The Sadducees take an extreme case to challenge Jesus' belief in the resurrection.

Jesus responds with a double accusation. The Sadducees are ignorant of the scriptures (a telling blow, since they based their denial of the resurrection on the silence of the Torah, the first five Old Testament books), and they do not trust the power of God. Verse 25 indicates that the future life is a different order of existence from the present. "Like angels" simply means in perfect communion with God. He quotes, to make his case, from that part of the Old Testament which the Sadducees took as authoritative, in this case Exodus 3:6. If God is rightly called the God of the living, and if he is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then these patriarchs must be said to be living with God.

This is a rather polemical answer, but it is effective. Its real significance lies in the fact that Jesus bases the hope for immortality not on something inherent or immortal in man, but on the power and grace of God.

5. What is the chief commandment?, 12:28-34

Here the questioner seems friendly, genuinely asking for information. When we recall that the rabbis distinguished 613 different commandments in the law, we can understand why an earnest Jew might ask such a question.

Jesus responds by citing two separate Old Testament passages, Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18, which had not before been put together in this way. Verses 29-30 are from the Shema, the prayer which every pious Jew repeated daily. The enumeration of the various faculties merely stresses the total claim of God on man.

"As yourself," in verse 31, has always given trouble. Is this really a third commandment to love the self? Or is Jesus taking our extreme but misdirected self-love as an example of the intensity of love which ought to be directed to the neighbor? Is he saying: Love your neighbor with all the concern and passion with which, as a sinner, you now love yourself?

b. The Messiah is not David's son, 12:35-37

When we remember that the Son of David type of messianic thinking had a strongly political and nationalistic flavor, we can see why Jesus rejects certain ways of thinking about the Davidic descent of the Messiah.

c. Against the scribes, 12:37-40

Having rejected some of the scribes' teaching, having just praised a sympathetic scribe's response, Jesus here turns to a criticism of their religious practice, making a devastating attack on religious professionalism. "Devouring widows' houses" probably refers to some form of financial gain based on spiritual influence over pious women, perhaps involving persuasion of the ladies to turn over property to the clergy.

d. The widow's offering, 12:41-44

Jesus knows how much money is put in the box not because he supernatural knowledge but probably because the amount of gift was called out by the priests.

 e. The apocalyptic discourse, 13:1-37

Most observers agree today that this chapter is a composite one, containing some general apocalyptic material from Mark's own as well as some genuine reflections of Jesus' own teaching. just what does apocalyptic mean? It is a particular way of thinking about the present and the future, and it can be contrasted with the prophetic type of thought. The prophet knew that God was acting here and now, in the present events of history, and he occasionally spoke of God's action in the immediate future. Apocalyptic, we might say, is prophecy become radically pessimistic. When the present state of history and culture looks unusually black, God's immediate action in it is not so clearly seen, and the apocalyptic thinker looks far into the future, finding his hope and resting place there. His pessimism is so acute that he feels God can act only by means of some cosmic catastrophe and, instead of describing God's action now, he describes the details of that future catastrophe. Even if God does not seem to be in control now, the apocalyptist in effect says, in the final days He will be Lord of all things. We might say that the current fascination that science fiction has for some people lies just at this point: frustrated with politics and with the problem of the immediate future, man may turn to the catastrophe of the end, and speculate about what will happen then. If politics is secular prophecy, science fiction may well be called secular apocalyptic.

Let us turn to this elusive Chapter 13. The early church historian Eusebius mentions in his writings an "oracle" that warned Christians in Jerusalem to flee at the start of the Roman siege of that city in A.D. 70, and verses 6-8, 14-20, 24-27, could very well be part of that oracle rather than words of Jesus.

The whole chapter falls into the following divisions:

(1) Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the temple, verses 1-2

This was Herod's temple, begun in 20 B.C., and said to be a beautiful building. It was destroyed in A.D. 70.

(2) Introduction to the discourse, verses 3-4

The disciples question Jesus about his prediction, and his response is the discourse proper. But instead of speaking of the fall of the temple, Jesus gives a detailed account of the events leading up to the end of the world.

(3) The first stage of the drama, verses 5-13

First, false messiahs will appear, claiming man's allegiance. Then will follow war, earthquakes, famines. This order of events is quite common in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writing of this kind. The sayings here have always been fertile ground for Christian groups predicting the end of the world after every historical catastrophe.

(4) The second stage, verses 14-23

An act of outrage to the temple is described. The "desolating sacrilege," of verse 14, refers to Daniel 9:27 and 11:31 where the pagan pollution of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes is described. It is not clear here just what sort of act is being predicted, perhaps some sort of violence done by one of the expected false messiahs.

Observe that verses 15-18 can very easily be understood as words of warning to Christians in Jerusalem under Roman attack, rather than as warnings about the end of the world. There is some reflection of Daniel 12 here.

(5) The final stage, verses 24-27

Here the climax, a cosmic catastrophe followed by the coming of the Son of man, is described. This section is composed almost entirely of Old Testament quotation and paraphrase, and is too unoriginal to be taken as exact words of Jesus.

(6) Conclusion to the chapter: on watchfulness, verses 28-37

Placed here at the end of this chapter, these warnings are made to speak of watchfulness in the face of the coming Son of man. Verse 28, however, could originally have been a saying of Jesus preparing the disciples for the crisis of his own ministry. Verse 32, suggesting that not even Jesus himself knows the time of the final consummation, must be genuine, as the early church would hardly have invented this admission of ignorance. The little parable in verses 34-36 may originally have been a word of Jesus preparing his disciples for the interval between his death and resurrection.

Thus, this chapter seems to contain some general apocalyptic material that was possibly used by the church in preparation for the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as some authentic sayings of Jesus, uttered in one context, but placed by Mark in the setting of the final consummation. The chapter as a whole presents many difficulties, but, in an age when persecution and catastrophe are not unknown to the church, it is not irrelevant; and the whole of it speaks movingly of the power of God and of his concern for his people even in the worst of times.