Mark 12 – Sidebar City

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Today’s PassageMark 12

Today’s chapter is Mark’s Endgame Debates Chapter. Each synoptic gospel features the Jewish religious leaders’ ongoing contention with Jesus during his last days in Jerusalem, and Mark packs it all into pretty much a single chapter. But among all the theological judo, we see one guy who isn’t looking for a fight.

And we’ll get to him in a moment. But first I want to note a couple irrelevant trivialities from the Parable of the Vine-growers.

You remember the Parable of the Vine-growers. It’s the one where some vine-growers try to take over the vineyard while their employer is out of town, and they start killing the slaves he sends back to check on them. It doesn’t go well for them when they kill the owner’s son. But ancillary to the entire point of the parable: Mark’s version is the only version where one of the messenger slaves leaves his encounter with the vine-growers sporting a head wound (4). Gotta hand it to you, Mark, that’s some attention-getting specificity.

Of equal tangentiality is the fact that the vineyard owner starts sending his slaves “at the harvest time” (2). The word for “harvest time” here is a single Greek word that you may be familiar with: καιρός, kairos. It’s one of two common Greek words for “time,” the other being χρόνος, chronos. While chronos is standard, measurable time under which every second is equal, kairos denotes a particular time for something, a time that is qualitatively different for other times. So as Jesus tells the parable, the owner sends a slave to the vine-growers “when it’s time.” Which time? The time for sending a slave to the vine-growers. And that, of course, is harvest time. So the translator supplies the additional word that we’d use in normal, non-Greek English.

But anyway: the religious debates. In the middle of the action, there’s a scribe who overhears the arguments between Jesus and his opponents, and he’s impressed with Jesus’ responses. So he asks Jesus what was a common topic of Jewish religious discussion at the time: “What commandment is the foremost of all [i.e. the number-one commandment]?” (28). When Jesus designates love as the cornerstone of the law, the scribe has a lengthy response:

Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. (32-33)

God is one, has no equal, and merits love from the entirety of one’s being: the bulk of the scribe’s words quote the Torah. And Jesus gives him an intellectual pat on the back, telling him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (34). At first glance, it might look like the man has just parroted back Jesus’ own answer, but he’s added two ideas. First, nothing exists in all creation that is not subordinate to God, and second, love is of greater importance than burnt offerings. When the scribe shows his understanding of the implications of Jesus’ teaching, the next logical step, Jesus sees that he’s on the right track.

I can’t help thinking this guy serves as a foil to the false flatterers earlier in the chapter. Right before they try to catch Jesus with a question about Roman taxes, these sons of submariners (an anachronism and a video game reference) lay it on thick, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth” (14). I bet they think they’re clever, flattering Jesus for his unflatterability. But the lone scribe, when he’s pleased with Jesus’ answer, keeps his focus on the truth of the answer and on the God that it honors.

It occurs to me that Jesus’ teaching usually points back toward himself, the divine Son of Man, and applauds those who recognize his true identity (even while urging them to keep it quiet: cf.  Matthew 16:13-20). But here’s an instance where someone has nothing to say about Jesus, yet is told he’s “not far from the kingdom of God.” And I’m not sure what to make of that. Has Jesus left the man to make the last connections on his own? Will it all click into place for him after Jesus’ death and resurrection? The New Testament authors certainly don’t tell us.

2 thoughts on “Mark 12 – Sidebar City

    1. Depends on in what sense you mean “harvest.” I’m inclined to view the era since Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as having several periods of growth, dormancy, and harvest, depending on receptivity to the gospel in time and space. Perhaps every time is the kairos for something–the trick is figuring out for what.


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