On Monday of Passion Week, Jesus entered the temple’s courts and prevented the normal merchandising that turned God’s “house of prayer for all nations” into a “den of robbers.” In other words, Jesus cleansed the temple just as earlier prophets had acted out symbols to embody their message. Jesus judged the temple authorities and their practices by his actions, also symbolized by the cursing the fig tree.
On Tuesday of Passion Week, Jesus encounters opposition from temple and religious leaders as he taught the people in the temple courts. Jesus’s temple cleansing had enraged the authorities and they had begun “to look for a way to kill him” (Mark 11:18).
Jesus spent Tuesday in the temple courts—walking, teaching, and watching. His presence was not ignored. Rather, the temple authorities and religious leaders—one group after another—confronted him, tested him and hoped to catch him in some trap which would expedite his death. Mark highlights these successive attempts by moving from one to the other without any narrative break. Mark 11:27-12:44 is a series of seven controversial encounters between the kingdom of God and the ruling temple authorities and their practices.
- “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Mark 11:28)
- “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” (Mark 12:11)
- “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Mark 12:14)
- “At the resurrection whose wife will she be?” (Mark 12:23)
- “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28)
- “How is it that the teachers of the law say that the Christ is the son of David?” (Mark 12:35).
- “This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the rest” (Mark 12:42).
These confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders are nestled between the cursing of the fig tree which represents Israel (Mark 11) and the private discussion with his disciples concerning the destruction of Jerusalem (Mark 13). The confrontations themselves provide reasons for divine judgment against Israel’s leaders and thus with consequences for Israel itself, just as the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had done in the past. Each of the exchanges represents some aspect of Israel (more specifically, the leaders with consequences for the people) which comes under divine judgment but at the same time illuminates the path of the kingdom of God.
- Israel rejected the authority of God’s messengers.
- Israel rejected the stone which God had chosen.
- Israel divided its allegiance between Caesar and God.
- Israel lost hope in God’s power over life and death.
- Israel failed to love God and neighbor more than burnt offerings and temple sacrifices.
- Israel had false expectations of the Messiah.
- Israel relished wealth and did not honor the poor (widows).
The first confrontation sets both the tone and the context for the other exchanges between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. The question they raise is central: “By what authority are you doing these things?”
What things? We would certainly include the cleansing of the temple the previous day, but there is more that is untold. We might surmise from the succeeding confrontations the sorts of “things” the leaders had in mind. They valued their wealth and favored status; they loved their power and the praise of their constituencies. They compromised with Caesar and solidified their power by distancing themselves from Messianic hopes.
The message of Jesus is the kingdom of God. Israel was supposed to flourish as that kingdom, but it—in the persons of its leaders—had rejected John the Baptist’s prophetic message of repentance. John came to prepare Israel for the coming of the kingdom through repentance, but the “chief priests, teachers of the law and the elders” refused to repent. They did not see the contrast between their present reign and the reign of the kingdom of God.
The authority of the kingdom of God—in the person of Jesus—threatened their authority. The message of the kingdom of God undermined their understanding of what it meant to reign as God’s leaders among the people. Consequently, they could not acknowledge John and now they had to kill Jesus, just as John himself was martyred for the sake of the kingdom.
Jesus, of course, does not answer their question except by implying that the answer to his question is the answer to their question. Jesus was commissioned by the same authority that John was. They are both prophets sent from God.
Jesus stumped them because they were unwilling to acknowledge John’s authority lest they hear the call to repent, but they were also unwilling to deny it because the people honored John as a prophet.
Jesus does not deny he has authority. Indeed, he implicitly asserts it. Moreover, the previous day he had acted on that authority by cleansing the temple. He simply refuses to justify his authority to those who not only would not believe what he says but who are only interested in some pretense for executing him. Jesus exercises the authority of the kingdom of God against the authority of the temple priests and rulers who live in shocking compromise with Roman authorities.
This exchange begins a series of confrontations that will ultimately lead to his arrest, trial and execution. But at the same time these exchanges reveal the just judgment of God against the ruling authorities in Jerusalem. The drama that will lead to the cross is now fully in play.