After Jesus cleansed the temple, he was incessantly confronted by temple authorities and other leaders within the Jewish community. They peppered him with questions hoping he might say something that might undermine his popularity with the people or endanger his life from the Romans. Eventually, however, they backed off, and now Jesus becomes more proactive. He goes on the offensive.
This section is the backend of the “temple narrative” which began when Jesus entered the temple on the day of his triumphal entry, looked around and went back to Bethany (Mark 11:1-11). The next day he exercised his kingdom authority by clearing the temple of exploitive merchandisers. Now at the end of this narrative, where Jesus is teaching in the temple courts, Jesus asserts his authority and compares his ministry with the temple authorities. In other words, the Son has come to assess how the vineyard is being run and his judgment is that the authorities should be replaced. This involves, ultimately, purifying the temple, that is, the destruction of the temple (Mark 13) and building a new one (resurrection).
This section (Mark 12:35-13:3) hangs together as Jesus’ proactive judgment against the temple complex. The discussion of Psalm 110 (Mark 12:35-37) asserts his authority over the temple, the contrast between the scribes and the widows asserts his judgment against the ruling class (Mark 12:38-44), and the announcement of the temple’s destruction asserts his judgment against the temple itself (Mark 13:1-3). There are several literary clues that connect these three episodes into one story, one judgment, which justifies the cleansing of the temple that occurred on the previous day.
The first episode, the question about Psalm 110, answers the temple authorities’ original question in Mark 11:28: “by what authority are you doing these things”? In other words, who gave you the right to cleanse the temple? Jesus’ response is essentially that while the Messiah is a descendent (“son”) of David, the Messiah is also much more, that is, he is David’s “Lord.”
Psalm 110 was often read in a Messianic way by Second Temple Judaism. The question Jesus raised is the juxtaposition of two assertions: (1) Psalm 110 is Messianic and (2) the Messiah is a “son of David.” Psalm 110 is an enthronement Psalm. The exalted king will reign until all enemies are crushed and the nations are judged. Further, he will function as a priest like the royal Melchizedek in Genesis 14. Psalm 110 envisions a royal priesthood that defeats the enemies of God as a warrior King.
By quoting Psalm 110, Jesus asserts his Messianic authority to judge God’s enemies, including the temple authorities. Thus, he has authority to cleanse the temple. He does this not only as David’s son, but also David’s Lord. The enthronement scene, which is interpreted elsewhere in the New Testament in terms of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God, envisions the reign of the Messiah in a new temple which is the temple of Jesus’ own resurrected body. Jesus is more than a son of David; he is (will be) the resurrected Lord of the earth who defeats all the enemies of God, including death. By quoting Psalm 110, Jesus anticipates his own resurrection and thus the rebuilding of the temple in his own body.
The second episode employs a strong contrast between wealth and poverty. It is difficult to decide whether Mark 12:38-40 is an independent saying or whether it should be closely aligned with Mark 12:41-44. I assume that they contextualize each other, that is, Mark combines these in order to strengthen the contrast between the wealthy, favored scribes and the poor, oppressed widows.
The scribes are described not only as those who are noticed and “first,” but also those who “devour widow’s houses.” Their dress (usually long white robes) identified them, their prayers were long to demonstrate their knowledge and erudition, and they were noticed (greeted) in the marketplace. They were the center of attention and they were honored with “first place” (proto). They were “first” in the synagogue (protokathedrias) and at meals (protoklisias). Culture exalted them and everyone wanted to appear with them.
But they exploited widows! What does Jesus mean by this statement? Within the narrative it prepares us for the contrast between the rich and the widow, but it also alerts us to Jesus’ critique of the temple complex. The temple economy, in some way, exploited widows; it placed a burden on widows that oppressed them.
How did the temple complex exploit widows? Some suggest that scribes were often given trusteeship over widow’s estates. Since women could not administer it for themselves, scribes were given the task. This, of course, had tremendous potential for abuse. Others, and this seems more likely, suggest that the contrast between abuse and prayers indicates that this was a temple problem. Perhaps the excessive costs of maintaining the temple devoured the resources of the poor. The economy of the temple, then, is Jesus’ point of attack just as it was when he cleansed the temple. The temple was supposed to be a house of prayer rather than a means of economic exploitation.
This exploitation is illustrated in the contrast between the contributions of the wealthy out of their abundance and the meager contribution of the poor widow. Read in this way, the story about the widow is not so much a praise for how the poor give all they have but rather a lament that the temple economy exploits such widows while the rich give out of their abundance (cf. Wright, CBQ , 262]. When Jesus sat “facing” the temple treasury—which consisted of thirteen trumpet-shaped chests in the Court of Women—this signals that he intends to scrutinize (etheorei) this economic activity.
The Jesus’ saying, emphasized by calling his disciples to him (their first appearance since Mark 11:27) and introduced by “Amen” solemnity, draws a stark contrast between the many rich who give out of their abundance and the single poor widow who gives out of her poverty. The rich given abundantly, but the widow gives everything, which is nothing more than the smallest valued coins in Palestine. Practically, she gives nothing but yet she gives everything. The rich continue to be rich but the widow now has nothing. The temple complex, a place of prayer, devours widows! The widow is a victim of the system that imposes duties on her for the sake of supporting the temple complex. The economic system oppressed the widows while it empowered and gave status to the rich. Churches and televangelists do the same when they extract gifts from the poor to support their wealthy structures.
In the third episode, Jesus exits the temple which alerts us to the conclusion of the controversy narrative (Mark 11:27-12:44). His exit may be interpreted as an act of disgust as if he is done with the temple. He does not return to it in Mark’s narrative. This disgust contrasts with the marvel of his disciples who are impressed with the size of the Herodian stones and the beauty of the temple complex.
But Jesus is in no mood to revel in the beauty of the buildings. Jesus recognizes their “greatness,” but he is unimpressed. He knows the future of these stones. The Herodian temple will be destroyed. Jesus announces the divine judgment to his disciples. Just as in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, so in the days of Roman oppression, the temple is given over to destruction. God will judge the tenants of his vineyard and destroy the temple.
Exiting the temple and crossing the Kidron Valley to ascend the Mount of Olives, Jesus sat opposite the temple. The narrative stressed the determined attitude of Jesus. He sat facing (katenanti) the temple (Mark 13:3) just as he sat facing the temple treasury a few moments earlier (Mark 12:41). This is a dramatic moment in the Markan narrative. He “faces” the temple—he looks it in the eye, discerns its evil and repudiates it.
It is a settled conviction. Judgment is coming. He has prefigured it in the cleansing of the temple, he announced it through the cursing of the fig tree, and now he will tell his disciples the story of temple’s horrid end.