Twirling the Moustache
The longer we read and study the Markan composition this year, the more instructive I find the metaphor of the Gospel of Mark as melodrama. Jesus is the obvious hero who goes about doing good and finding favor with the people. Every time he comes onstage, we cheer and clap and whistle our approval. But who are the villains in this saga?
Harry Fledderman makes the persuasive case that the villains in the Markan composition are the scribes. I would encourage you to read his 1982 article, listed in the “References and Resources,” for the evidence. This is particularly pertinent in the section of the Markan composition we are considering. The scribes are on stage from Mark 12:28 through the end of the chapter. In fact, the warning against the scribes in Mark 12:38-40 is Jesus’ final public teaching in the Markan account.
Last week we heard the story of the scribe who was “not far” from the Kin(g)dom of God. But “not far” is not the same as “in.” Remember that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. The dialogue with the scribe who almost got it puts an end to the honor challenges to Jesus in the Temple during Holy Week (in the Markan account). No one had the nerve to risk looking foolish, so they kept their mouths shut and made plans behind closed doors.
As a result, Jesus takes the offensive. Who does he pursue? It’s the scribes (see Mark 12:35). “And replying, Jesus said as he was teaching in the temple, ‘How is it that the scribes are saying that the Messiah is David’s son?’” (my translation). It should be clear that the problem is not in calling the Messiah “David’s son.” After all, that is precisely the title Bartimaeus used alongside the Jericho road.
The problem is with the interpretation of what this means. The scribes, as portrayed by Jesus in the Markan composition, see this as a subordinate relationship. But Jesus takes the words of Psalm 110 (an enthronement psalm) and uses them to demonstrate that the scribes have the relationship backwards. David, Jesus says, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, wrote, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit down at my right hand until I shall place the nations under your feet.’” (Mark 10:36b, my translation).
Verse thirty-five begins with an “and,” so there is no reason to assume that we have a new scene in verses 35-40. At the very least, the scribe who almost got it is likely still in the crowd of listeners. It would be highly unusual for that scribe to have come to Jesus alone, so it is a fairly safe bet that other scribes are still in Jesus’ audience in the temple courts. Jesus baits them into further debate, but they aren’t having it.
This unanswered theological argument is, therefore, the final demonstration that Jesus has “authority” and the scribes do not. “From the beginning of Mark’s Gospel,” Fledderman writes, “the scribes and Jesus are compared specifically on the issue of authority. Jesus’ authority is connected with his teaching,” Fledderman continues, “and it is contrasted with the lack of authority of the scribes.
We find the favorite Markan word for “teaching” in verse thirty-five. It is repeated in verse thirty-eight as Jesus publicly denounces the scribes. “Jesus’ authority is real and it can only come from God,” Fledderman notes. “The picture was clear from the beginning – Jesus has authority but the scribes do not” (page 56). Fledderman refers us to the first instance of this clash in Mark 1:22. Thus, this opposition between Jesus and the scribes in Mark is supported by the chiastic structure of the gospel account – at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ public pronouncements.
Whenever the scribes come onstage, the audience should boo, hiss, and throw popcorn at the villains. “Mark portrays the scribes as the opposite of what Jesus is and what the disciple should be,” Fledderman writes (page 57).
This makes the story of the scribe who almost got it all the more surprising in the Markan account. This story does not disprove the villain status of the scribes in the Markan composition, Fledderman argues. “In this passage Mark is saying that this state of affairs does not have to exist,” he proposes, “the scribes do not need to oppose Jesus” (page 66). But with one exception they do.
Yet, it is not the theological divergence that Jesus condemns in Mark 12:37b-39. It is the “robbery” the scribes commit by exploiting the machinery of the temple system. The scribes use the faithfulness of ordinary people against them in order to enrich and entrench themselves in the system of religio-political power. Fledderman comments in a footnote that this is why they will receive the “more severe” condemnation. “These will receive the heavier sentence,” he notes, “because they not only oppress the widows but do so on the pretext of religion” (page 66).
This comment can help us to understand the words and intent of Mark 12:40. “They are devouring the households of the widows and are using the pretext of long prayers – these shall receive the greater judgment” (Mark 12:40, my translation). The scribes and the temple system are described throughout this section of the Markan composition as engaged in a dance of deception. “In the context of the Jerusalem section,” Fledderman writes, “the long prayers must be a reference to the cult. The scribes are draining the widows’ resources,” he concludes, “by the temple costs.”
This is why we need to read and study verses 35-40 before we begin to interpret verses 41-44. Especially in this season of congregational stewardship drives in many congregations, the temptation is to focus on the widow’s offering as an example of “real stewardship.” This extracts the widow’s story from the context of the Markan account and makes her once again a victim of an extractive “temple” system.
The context makes it clear that the story is far more complicated. “The rapaciousness of the scribes is contrasted with the generosity of the poor widow,” Fledderman argues. “The scribes devour the houses of the widows (12:40), whereas the poor widow out of her want gives all that she has to live on (12:44). Although Jesus praises her generosity (12:43),” Fledderman concludes, “the tragedy of her desperate situation remains. Her house has been completely devoured” (page 67).
We will spend significant time with the widow this week, but let’s stick with the scribes for now. The Markan account portrays an intimate relationship between scribal rapaciousness and the “robbery” facilitated by the temple system. It is very easy for some of us preachers to identify the scribes with certain high profile media types who extract offerings from the vulnerable in order to purchase personal jet planes. And I’m not suggesting that we should shy away from such identifications.
In addition, we can help our listeners understand that this is also a matter of political and structural injustice. The separation between “church” and “state” that some of us take for granted (at least in theory) was not part of the system in the Roman empire. In addition to the “spiritual” power that scribes and others exploited to enrich themselves, there was the political power of the high priesthood in collaborative alliance with the forces of Empire.
Thus, it is also very easy for some of us preachers to identify the scribes with government systems that enrich the few at the expense of the many. The alliance between such governmental structures and officials and the “one percent,” the oligarchy behind much of our current American malaise is obvious even to the casual observer. That alliance looks a great deal like the collaboration between government, business, and religious power to defraud the poor in the first century imperial system.
I am always tempted to stop there and be happy that the “greater judgment” is targeted to those others. But I can’t stop there. I think about the dozens of parishioners I have known over the years who were much more like the poor widow than they were like the scheming scribes. Many of them had no business giving from their meager resources for the work of the Church. Yet, to suggest that they would do otherwise would have been to irreparably insult them and their faithfulness.
It took a while for this tension to dent my “stewardship” awareness as a parish pastor. Could I represent and sustain a system that received gifts from people who needed every penny just to survive? There was no point in discussing “sacrificial giving” with such folks. Indeed, every gift they made was sacrificial. None, as far as, I know, gave their last two pennies. But for some that was very nearly the case.
Notions of sacrificial giving, of giving until it hurts (or feels good) – these are notions that can be applied only to people of some means. Such discussions are themselves signs of privilege and critiques of our religious, economic, and political systems. I won’t resolve that tension here (as if I could). Instead, I note the model of Jesus, who praises the widow’s faith without discounting the desperate tragedy of her household economics.
Do we foster systems that build “God’s house” at the expense of widows’ houses? If so, what shall we do about that system and our places in it? If those questions don’t haunt leaders in Christian churches, then we too shall receive “the greater judgment.”
References and Resources
FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.