Mark Week 7

Teaching at the Temple: Mark 11:1–13:37

By Laura C.S. Holmes
Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Mark 11:1–13:37


Week 7
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All that Glitters

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a rich heiress named Portia sets a test for her prospective suitors. She will consent to marry whoever passes the test. Three suitors in a row choose between gold, silver, and lead caskets. The first suitor chooses the gold casket, feeling that anything less would insult Portia’s status and honor. In return, he receives a note that begins like this:

All that glisters [glitters] is not gold
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded [tombs] do worms infold.

Chapters 11–13 of Mark illustrate this proverb well. Humans are easily distracted by the things that are “gold.” Whether these things are actual gold or money (11:12–25), or less material — such as power (12:1–12), politics (12:13–17), religious practices (12:18–27), or expectations of how events will proceed (13:1–37) — we forget that all that glitters is not gold. By example, Jesus continues to exhort his followers to see things rightly. Internal qualities — such as faith, boldness in action, and perseverance — are the “gold” of God’s kingdom.

Triumphal Entry (11:1–11)

A dramatic change of setting takes place in Mark 11. For the first time in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is entering Jerusalem. We have known for several chapters that Jerusalem is where Jesus is going to die. Yet the chapter that prepares for this entrance does not highlight Jesus’ imminent death, nor his enemies’ triumph. Instead, it begins by showing Jesus’ authority and power, as he enters Jerusalem just as a Messiah should [see Author’s Note 1].

Furthermore, Mark’s audience sees Jesus’ prophetic authority demonstrated before their very eyes. Simply put: as with any true prophet, what Jesus says comes true. This simple statement becomes increasingly important in this section of the gospel. If Jesus’ words prove true about small things, like a colt tied to a post, then they will also prove true about important events in the future, like the destruction of the temple (13:1–4) and the end of the age (13:28–37).

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt is certainly significant. While this detail invokes humble images for most modern readers, the connections to Old Testament passages spark grand messianic expectations. For example, Zechariah promised that a new king would come to reign in Jerusalem, and bystanders would know him because of his arrival on a colt (Zechariah 9:9). In this way, Jesus is portraying himself as a truly golden Messiah, one who is worthy of the praises offered.

The people honor Jesus as one who comes in the name of the Lord (see Mark 1:2–3). They point beyond him, similar to his preaching, to the “coming kingdom,” although on this occasion, the crowd says this kingdom is “of [their] father David” (11:10; NASB) rather than God’s kingdom. This connection to David also brings to mind expectations of the Messiah, God’s chosen one, who is to restore Israel to its glory days, as under David’s leadership. Thus, the people cry, “Hosanna,” which is Aramaic for “help!” or “save!” The people cry to their Messiah for help, for deliverance, for salvation.

Once the Messiah entered Jerusalem, he was expected to come in and purify the temple to prepare it for the advent of God’s kingdom. Jesus enters Jerusalem and looks around at the temple; so far, so good. However, contrary to messianic expectations, Jesus leaves Jerusalem, spending the night at Bethany, a town about two miles away. In this way, Mark makes the claim again: Jesus embodies salvation and deliverance, but the way he does it is consistent with and contrary to expectations.

In the Temple (11:12–25)

Mark describes the events of Jesus’ return to Jerusalem the following day by intercalating them. One episode sits inside the other, and the events are mutually interpretive. The following brief chart demonstrates this:

Jesus curses the fig tree (11:12–14)

Jesus drives out sellers in the temple, declaring it a house of prayer (11:15–19)

The fig tree Jesus cursed is withered (11:20–21)

Jesus teaches about the power of faith and prayer (11:22–25)

Mark begins telling us about Jesus’ teaching in the temple by mentioning the meal Jesus intends to have for breakfast: figs. Many readers of the Gospel of Mark react negatively to this story. Because Mark has told us that it is not the season for figs, the fig tree seems like an innocent bystander in this story. Jesus seems like he should have eaten breakfast in Bethany before he left. After all, if Jesus could easily feed the 5,000, why is he looking to a fig tree for breakfast in the first place?

If we stop here, though, we have missed the points Mark has made by putting these two stories about the fig tree and the temple right next to each other. When Jesus curses the fig tree, he acts out a parable [see below, Author’s Note 4]. In fact, the next parables in Mark’s gospel are both about agriculture: first a vineyard (12:1–12) and then another fig tree (13:28–29). As the next episode shows, Jesus is demonstrating what happens to trees, buildings, institutions, or even the leaders of the people of God, when they look beautiful but do not bear fruit. All that glitters is not gold.

When Jesus enters the temple complex itself, he stays in the outer courtyard, which is called the Court of the Gentiles. In this courtyard, Jews who came to the temple to provide offerings for sacrifices had to exchange Gentile money (Roman money) for temple money, which was considered sacred. These buyers and sellers were thought to be integral to the temple’s operations.

Using the words of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, he proclaims that the temple’s purpose was not to be for Israel alone. The temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations (11:17; Isaiah 56:7). In other words, the court of the Gentiles should have been as sacred as the interior courts. Yet Jesus claims that the practices of the temple leadership have made it corrupt, just as the temple became “a den of robbers” in Jeremiah’s day (Jeremiah 7:11; see Author’s Note 2).

The reaction to Jesus’ pronouncement tells us that the temple leadership interpreted it as an indictment against them. In fact, it is likely that Jesus’ action in the temple is what provoked the authorities to set events in motion for his arrest, trial, and eventual death [see Author’s Note 3]. Jesus’ action in the temple achieves the same end as his words to the fig tree: both are a commentary on the failure of the tree and the institution to bear fruit.

When Jesus’ disciples see the withered fig tree upon leaving the temple, they know Jesus’ earlier words have proven true. The fig tree will never allow anyone to eat from it again, as it can no longer bear fruit at all. The temple will be in an equally dire situation when Jesus’ words prove true against it, as he not only seeks its purification, but will also prophesy its destruction (13:1–4; see Author’s Note 4).

Much of this section of Mark reiterates the fact that what Jesus says will come to pass. This is true whether Jesus is asking his disciples to find a colt for him to ride (11:2–6), pronouncing judgment on both fig tree and temple (11:12–22; 13:1–4), or illustrating the religious leaders’ lack of authority (11:27–33). In this way, when Jesus claims that people will receive whatever they ask for in prayer, his disciples are to believe that this too is true [see Author’s Note 5]. Now the appropriate place for prayer is not in the temple, but rather outside of it. The outwardly glittering structure has proven, at least in Jesus’ eyes, that it is not gold.

Parable as Prophecy (12:1–12)

Throughout Mark 11–13, we see a tension between the crowds, who eagerly listen to Jesus, and the religious leaders in Jerusalem, who are seeking to kill him (11:18–19). This contrast grows increasingly strong as Jesus continues to teach in the temple precincts (11:27). In fact, the controversy grows to a climax when Jesus begins to teach in parables again, and this time he tells a parable that is directly against “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” who are listening (11:27).

Jesus tells a parable of a man who plants and prepares a vineyard (12:1) and then rents the vineyard to tenants [see Author’s Note 6]. The tenants begin to defy the owner of the vineyard when they seize and beat the slave who came to collect the owner’s earnings (12:2). Withholding the owner’s payment from the fruit of the vineyard effectively implied that the land was theirs and that they were subject to no owner [see Author’s Note 7].

Each time the owner sends a different slave to collect what is due to him, the tenants increased the levels of violence against the slaves (12:4–5). At this point in the story, we hear that the owner will change his plans and will send his beloved son, claiming that “they will respect him,” showing the son the same level of deference that is due the father (12:6). Instead, they kill the son. This time, however, they kill not for resistance to the owner, but for gain for themselves (12:8). The results are expected: the owner comes, “destroys” the tenants, and gives the vineyard to others (12:9).

Like its Old Testament parallel in the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1–7, what begins by highlighting the love and care of the vineyard owner (Isaiah 5:1–2; Mark 12:1–6) concludes by passing judgment on the offending party (Israel in Isaiah; the Jerusalem leadership in Mark). Furthermore, the actions of the tenants represent Israel’s actions towards its messengers and prophets. Finally, the connection between the actions of the vineyard owner and God’s actions in sending Jesus (9:37) are clear when the owner claims that he has a “beloved son” left to send; this is exactly how God has described Jesus (1:11; 9:7).

The prophesied destruction of the tenants matches the prophesied movement away from the temple: prayers of faith on a mountaintop will be answered just as surely as a rejected stone — a rejected Son — will become the capstone of the building (12:10).

Controversy Again: Politics (12:13–17) and Religion (12:18–27)

In the next scene, Mark’s audience sees the Pharisees and Herodians conspiring together to compel Jesus to say something that would provoke his arrest (see 3:6). They begin by asking Jesus a question about politics: Should faithful Jews pay Roman taxes? Jesus asks them for a denarius, a Roman coin equivalent to a laborer’s wages for a day. Jesus’ answer bests his opponents by not answering the question he is asked. While Caesar’s face is on the denarius, thereby implying the coin is in fact Caesar’s and that Jews should pay taxes, it is also true that everything is God’s (see Psalm 24:1; Mark 13:19). Given that Jesus has criticized Gentile governance and leadership earlier in the gospel (10:42–45), his answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians is complex at best: give Caesar his, but give God all.

The Sadducees then approach, asking a question about theology. The Sadducees use an example from Mosaic law to prove, by implication, that there is no resurrection (12:18, 23). If a woman, fulfilling the law, marries multiple men sequentially, “in the resurrection whose wife will she be?” (12:23). Jesus claims that the Sadducees “know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (12:24).

The Sadducees were a Jewish group that held the Torah, or first five books of the Old Testament, to be authoritative. Therefore, Jesus uses scriptures that they hold sacred to show that they are incorrect. Since God is the God of the living, and God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then there must be a resurrection (otherwise God would be the God of the dead, as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have all died). Mark’s audience does not need this argument to believe in resurrection, however: they know resurrection happens because they have seen it (5:43; 9:27), although the best is yet to come (16:1–8).

A Scribe Breaks Stereotypes (12:28–34)

Mark’s readers have now seen four episodes where Jesus trumps his opponents in arguments or parables (11:27–33; 12:1–12; 12:13–17; 12:18–27). When another scribe approaches, readers may well expect Jesus versus Opponents, Round 5. Instead, Mark turns the tables. The scribe asks a fairly straightforward question: “Which commandment is the first of all?” (12:28). Jesus replies the way nearly every first-century Jew would, with the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4–9).

Proclaiming that the goal of humanity is love of God and love of neighbor is not novel, despite the difficulty in accomplishing these commandments. Instead of seeking to kill Jesus (12:12), leaving astonished (12:17), or being silenced by Jesus’ judgment (12:27), the scribe agrees with Jesus and actually extends Jesus’ teaching further: loving God and neighbor “is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:33).

In other words, the central component of what Jesus has called “repent[ing] and believ[ing] in the good news” (1:15) is not participating in the temple (see Amos 5; Jeremiah 7). This scribe, a member of a group that has been central in opposing Jesus throughout the gospel, is now affirming one of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’ mission.

Growing Opposition: The World (13:1–37)

Mark 13 is Jesus’ second discourse in the gospel (see Mark 4 for the first). Jesus’ disciples first ask about the destruction of the temple, and they take it as a given that when the temple falls, the end of the age will begin (13:1–4). Jesus’ teaching, however, shows that many events must take place before the end comes, and he does not even know when this end will be (13:32; see Author’s Note 8). In fact, despite the disciples’ first question, the focus of Jesus’ teaching is not about when the end will come but more about what to do until that time: wait, watch, and witness (13:9–13, 28–37).

All That Is Gold

Jesus’ teaching at the temple has indicated that all that glitters is not gold: outside appearances do not reveal what is inside. At the same time, there has been a different golden thread running through these texts. In J. R. R. Tolkein’s book, The Fellowship of the Ring, the character Aragorn is a figure who is the descendent of kings but does not yet claim the kingship for himself. Aragorn is described with a poem that begins, “all that is gold does not glitter.” While we have been shown that all that glitters is not gold in these chapters of Mark, we also see gold that does not glitter. Jesus himself, the Messiah who fulfills and counters messianic expectation, who confounds and praises his opponents, and who predicts the end of the age yet does not know when it will occur, is gold that does not glitter.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. According to these chapters in Mark, what are examples of things that glitter but are not gold? In what ways is Jesus gold that does not glitter? Are there exceptions to these aphorisms (in other words, an example of gold that glitters) in these chapters?
  2. When Jesus says, “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” (12:17) what do you think he means?
  3. What do you find challenging about the first and second greatest commandments? How do you obey them? How have you disobeyed them? What actions can you take to keep these commandments?
  4. What messages does Mark 13 convey to the church today?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

There were various expectations of a Messianic figure based on first-century Jewish texts, but one important text describing the Messiah’s role comes from a text about 100 years before Jesus, the Psalms of Solomon 17. There, the Messiah is clearly described as a king who reigns over Jerusalem and purifies the city, especially the temple, when he arrives.


Author’s Note 2

Mark actually says that Jesus calls the temple a “den of brigands,” which is the same word used to describe the people with whom Jesus is crucified (15:27). This word commonly describes those Jews who fought against the imperial power of Rome to achieve their independence by violent means. These revolutionaries were often arrested and crucified as traitors of Rome. From Jeremiah’s perspective, the corruption was not that the temple leadership was embezzling temple funds or offering sacrifices in inappropriate ways. Instead, Jeremiah was most concerned with the fact that the people were perfectly happy to perform sacrifices in the temple and act in any way they pleased outside of it (thus, being robbers or brigands). In other words, the sacrifices they made in the temple were not reflected in sacrifices in their lives.


Author’s Note 3

On this point, see E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), pp. 296­­­–318, but esp. pp. 301 ff.


Author’s Note 4

When Jesus curses the fig tree he also sheds light on the actions of the temple leadership, and not only on the temple establishment itself. The final episode of Jesus’ teaching in the temple involves his observation of an impoverished widow whom Jesus praises for giving “all she had to live on” (Greek: “her whole life”) to the temple (12:44). Before this teaching, however, Jesus has pointed out that the scribes “have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets [and] they devour widows’ houses” (12:40). The temple leadership should never have put the widow in the position so that she had to give all she had to live on. They have deprived her of her life. As a parallel, Jesus demonstrates this action of depriving an innocent victim of its life by cursing the fig tree. Those who claim that Jesus’ actions toward the fig tree are unjust are, in fact, correct. This enacted parable illuminates the unjust actions of the temple leadership by replicating them in a different setting.


Author’s Note 5

Of course, these verses have been problematic for Jesus’ disciples ever since Jesus uttered them. In fact, the unequivocal nature of Jesus’ promises here — that a person could ask for whatever he or she wants in prayer, believing in its reception, and it will come to pass — runs up against Jesus’ own experience in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32–42). We will explore the tension between these two passages in Lectio 8, next week. For further reading, see also Sharyn Echols Dowd, Prayer, Power, and the Problem of Suffering: Mark 11:22–25 in the Context of Markan Theology (Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 105; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).


Author’s Note 6

The description of this man’s actions comes from Isaiah 5:1–2, which describes Israel as a vineyard God loves and cares for, but which, despite God’s conscientious care and green thumb, yields “wild grapes” rather than the expected, fruitful vines. Here, Jesus modifies this traditional metaphor of God’s love for Israel. The man who purchased the vineyard leaves it in the hands of tenants while he is out of the country (11:2). This is a common practice in Palestine in the first century, but it also serves a point in the parable.


Author’s Note 7

In the first-century political and economic environment, such rebellious action on the part of the lower-class tenants, who were effectively sharecroppers, could be understandable. Overlords, whether Gentile or Jewish, would not be looked upon favorably by most of the lower class, as the payment for working the land (what was due to the master, 12:2) could easily be high enough to ensure that the tenants could never leave for a better position elsewhere. Withholding the master’s payment could be a form of economic, social, or political rebellion in an unjust system.

However, such a reading of this parable misses a central point. Rebelling against this particular master involves rebelling against God. While Jesus is using both a common Old Testament metaphor and a common first-century situation, this does not imply that he is supportive of the servitude of the lower classes (see, e.g., 12:38–40). Instead, the fact that the tenants in this parable symbolize the chief priests, scribes, and elders, means that these particular tenants are complicit in the unjust system and benefit from it, rather than being the ones taken advantage of by it.


Author’s Note 8

The language of Mark 13 is that of apocalyptic literature, like the book of Revelation. This was a common genre of literature during the time of the New Testament. It uses symbols to describe heavenly realities and to explain their significance for events on earth. Mark is less concerned with predicting the precise events that are to take place in order to calculate when the end to come (see 13:32) and more concerned with the proper action his audience needs to take before the end.


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Discussion and Comments

2 Comments to “Teaching at the Temple: Mark 11:1–13:37”

  1. David Dickerson says:

    Forgive me, but I can’t resist this!
    It is the conditions of her father’s will that force Portia to impose the “casket tests” in MV.
    I know–picky, picky.
    D. Dickerson