Questions and answers - Mark 12:13-44

This is a sermon by Peter Birnie from 6th September 2020.

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A common insult that always amuses me is when someone is described as being of “as much use as a chocolate teapot.” That always makes me smile, but especially because I know in my house we could definitely find a use for a chocolate teapot. We would eat a chocolate teapot. So even further down the scale of uselessness than a chocolate teapot would be a hammer made out of glass. I can’t think of anything more useless than a glass hammer. Imagine trying to smash open a diamond using a glass hammer. The diamond is not going to be the object lying in pieces by the end of that experiment.


Well, with the cross of Jesus Christ beginning to loom large over us in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem which is dangerous enough but he is in the most dangerous place in Jerusalem for a man whom the religious leaders want to get rid of – he is in the Temple. We have already read in chapter 11 (v18) that the Chief Priests and teachers of the law were looking for a way to kill him and in chapter 12v12 that they wanted to arrest him there and then but were afraid of the crowd. So since they can’t find a way to either kill him or arrest him yet, they decide to try to smash his credibility to pieces with some questions designed to expose him as a fake and hopefully get rid of him once and for all.



The problem with their plan is that they are trying to smash a diamond with a glass hammer. Jesus is the real thing, there are no cracks or weaknesses to be exploited – there is no gap whatsoever between the things that Jesus teaches and who He is. He has perfect integrity. That is not the case with the Jewish leaders. They are the ones that end up in pieces in this chapter and it is because they are utter hypocrites. There is no integrity in their lives – rather there is a huge gap between what they claim to believe and how they actually live. They pretend to all around that they are beautiful diamonds but the reality is they are fakes, they are cracked glass and trying to break Jesus will shatter them.

  • Where does your loyalty lie? (v13-17 and 41-44)
  • In verses 13 to 17 Jesus answers a question that sounds like it is about tax but in reality it challenges us about our loyalty. Where does our loyalty lie? Sneaky, snaky men are sent by the leaders to “catch Jesus in his words” and they begin by praising him for his integrity and commitment to truth. Which is galling since we can see so clearly that these men wouldn’t recognise integrity and truth if it hit them over the head. They have a real beauty of a question lined up for Jesus which should either land him in serious trouble with the Romans or else alienate him from the Jewish crowds; v14+15 “Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” The Romans were the occupying force in Israel and by carrying out a census could enforce this tax for each person who lived in the land – the presence of the Romans was resented anyway but having extra taxes to pay made it even worse. 

    So if Jesus says to pay the tax then the Jewish crowds will be very let down as their expectations about Jesus as their liberator were beginning to grow. But if he says not to pay the tax then the Romans with all their military might will surely execute Jesus. It is a clever question, a real hammer-blow to Jesus in the Pharisees’ minds. And you can imagine the eagerness of these men to hear which answer Jesus will give, the smug little smiles on their faces as they try to stop themselves rubbing their hands together in anticipation. But one of the things we must realise in CC Riverside is that Jesus was never afraid of questions, he was never on the defensive and so we don’t need to be either. Pray we get this so that the gospel rings out from us unapologetically.

    The Pharisees’ were so eager to hear Jesus’ response that they didn’t stop to think even when Jesus told them he knew they were trying to trap him. If they had paused, even for a second, they might have realised that as usual, Jesus was making the examiners sit the exam, the hunters were becoming the hunted. They happily bring Jesus the coin that he asks for, which has Caesar’s image and inscription on it, but their delight turns to amazement at Jesus’ response; “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Their hammer blow hasn’t even marked Jesus but instead has cracked them wide open.  These coins that the Pharisees are happy to use so obviously belong to Caesar that if he asks for them then they should be given to him. But the same goes for God. If there is anything that bears God’s image and belongs to him then that in no way should be held back. Gen 1 - Humans are made in the image of God and belong to God.

    Our lives are not our own. As the Westminster Catechism puts it so well, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Our loyalty, our purpose, our whole being is to orbit around Him – that is what we have been made for, and anything else is a perversion and a rebellion. When people seek the meaning of life, this is it. That feeling we have that we are missing something – this is what we are missing. This is a huge challenge for anyone but especially for these hypocritical Pharisees who want to rule their own lives, who want to be seen as doing the right thing but don’t want to actually do the right thing because of what it costs.  Commentator David Garland says this; “The Christian owes Caesar something but not everything … The demands of God are infinitely greater. We who bear God’s image and are inscribed with Jesus’ name owe God everything.” Christians (image and name).


    ‘Where does your loyalty lie?’ That is the question posed by Jesus here and it is a question we all answer with how we live. The Pharisees’ loyalty lay with themselves, Jesus exposes that with his answer and Mark helps to expose it even more for his readers with a kind of symmetry in this passage - look at the end verses, 41-44. This widow who gives her only coppers as an offering to be used by God, shows us what loyalty looks like. She gives her all whilst others give a bit. Her life orbits around God but the lives of many around her want God to be one of the things orbiting around them.


    Give to God what is God’s. This is another way of Jesus saying “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” another way of emphasising his warning “what good is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” Orbiting your entire life around God, bringing every area in submission to King Jesus is what you are made for.  


  • What are you hoping for? (v18-27 and 38-40)

    Have you ever wondered about Americans? In particular, have you ever been amazed at their love for their flag and their unashamed patriotism? Or perhaps hugely irritated by it when you watch the Ryder cup and hear those constant yells of USA USA? Where does such loyalty come from? We don’t really have it anymore in our nation. I think in large part it springs from a confident hope that they are going to win. That no matter what is happening right now, the USA will triumph and its citizens will endure.  Loyalty and hope go hand in hand and so if you, like the widow, are to give your loyalty fully to God, if your life is going to orbit around God and be lived in all areas for His glory, then it is vital that your hope is in the right place. The next question that Jesus faces in this passage comes from people whose hope is all wrong.

    The Sadducees were a strict sect of Jews who cared deeply for the Torah (the ‘Law’, the first 5 books of the Old Testament) and were extremely harsh on those who they judged were failing to live in obedience to it.

    There are many promises in those first 5 books of the Bible that looking back through the eyes of faith we can now see pointing towards fulfilment in Jesus through the cross and the empty tomb, but resurrection is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah and so the Sadducees didn’t accept that this future resurrection was a reality. Their hope then, was very much centred around the present life and therefore the loyalty that Jesus is teaching is out of their reach.


    In verses 18-23 they set out this elaborate situation where a set of brothers, following the obligations of the law (designed to keep property within the same family and tribe), one by one marry this same woman but then die before a child is born. Here comes their hammer blow of a question for this upstart Jesus whom the crowds are so enamoured by. When they have all died then “at the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” More smug smiles, more hands rubbed together in glee. And then ‘crack’ and it is the hammer that again smashes into pieces. Jesus once more is unmarked and the Sadducees this time are the ones publically humbled for all to see.V24 “Jesus replied, ‘Are you not in error because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God?” Humbling!  


    Jesus explains (with authority) that the resurrection will be different to our experience of life now but that it is a fact and that it is very much testified to in the scriptures that they claim to hold so dear (Marriage relationship broadened out challenging – advise read chronicles of Narnia last battle).

    Jesus shows the Sadducees that they are reading Genesis to Deuteronomy all wrong. God is the God of the living – when he spoke from the burning bush to Moses in Exodus 3, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all gone from this earth for hundreds of years and yet God didn’t say “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. God is the God of the living and not the dead. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not dead and gone but alive and in God’s presence because resurrection is real.

    Jesus starts his response to the Sadducees with “Are you not in error” and he finishes with “You are badly mistaken” – and the depth and seriousness of their error is lived out in verses 38-40. The teachers of the law glide around feeling important, demanding respect and honour from the people, make long and impressive prayers and yet totally smash up the law when it suits them especially when money is involved. Living without real future hope, leads to a life of self-rule and selfishness (be that as a as someone like a Sadducee who insists this life is all there is or someone like a Pharisee who say they believe in the resurrection but live only for what this world offers). ‘YOLO’ sounds so glamourous but its fruits are greed and hurt and pain for those around. And the consequences are God’s judgement, v40; “These men will be punished most severely.” What are you hoping for? Resurrection hope rooted in God’s promises allows a person to give their loyalty fully to King Jesus, any lesser hope leads to the life of self-rule and condemnation, leads to the reality of hell.  

  • What is the impact of this loyalty and hope? (v28-34 and 35-37)
  • I was talking to a member of CC Riverside a few weeks ago and he shared a very helpful concern with me. He gave a gentle warning against the tendency to reduce the Christian life to simply evangelism, and I think that he is bang on with that warning. Evangelism is of course a vital priority for us all but telling people about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, rule and return is not our purpose in itself, instead it is a necessary part of living our whole lives with Jesus as our King, lives that orbit properly around God.


    What does this sort of life, the regular Christian life look like? What is produced by loyalty to God springing from hope in God? At the centre of our passage today (v28-37) we have a question that leaves us all smashed in little pieces on the floor; “What is the most important commandment?” Jesus’ answer is clear and consistent with God’s call on his people’s hearts from the beginning; “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”” Can you see how the enormity of this command dwarfs the trite little sayings that our culture wants to attempt to live by? ‘Just be kind to each other’ – not good enough in God’s eyes. ‘Treat others as you want to be treated’ – fail. ‘Do no harm to others’, nope. They don’t even get close to the standard of love Jesus sets out here.

    All your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength is to be devoted to God and with that vertical relationship as it should be, then you can set about loving your neighbour as yourself. Nothing in our lives is outside of this claim on our loyalty and commitment. When you go to work, will you do it in a way that pleases the God you love? When you deal with a difficult neighbour or acquaintance, will you seek to treat them in a way that pleases the God you love? Will you spend and invest your money in ways that please the God you love? When you hear of a need you could meet in your church family or in your neighbourhood, will you seek to sacrificially meet that need to please the God you love? When God’s word challenges the way you are living, will you seek to change your behaviour to please the God you love? This is what orbiting around God demands of us. This is what the widow got so right and the religious leaders got so wrong.

    I think the teacher of the law who asked this question understands what Jesus is demanding and so he gives a wise response to Jesus; “that is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” You can’t fool God. You can’t live the way you want, ruling yourself, having everything orbit around you, but then polish it up with a nice religious coating. Do as many religious things as you want, they won’t change your heart – as the man realises this Jesus tells him that he isn’t far from the Kingdom of God, and then that is it, the questions are finished and no one dares to ask any more. Why? Because none of them have scratched Jesus at all, instead each one has left the questioner all broken up.


    And if we are still listening, and if we are honest with God and ourselves, we are broken by Jesus’ answers as well. Even those of us who are Christians already know our loyalty is so often divided, our hope wavers with the circumstances of life, and we know that our love for God gets nowhere near the ALL of our heart, soul, mind and strength. So what are we to do? The teacher of the law was near the Kingdom in terms of his thinking, but actually he was near the Kingdom in a very physical way because he was talking with the King.


    And so we finish with verses 38-40 and we are back once more in Mark’s gospel to the question of who Jesus is? He is the promised one, He is the greater David, He is the Messiah, He is the Saviour King who has come to put all of God’s enemies under His feet. Sin, death and God’s eternal judgement are sorted out by Him. He gets to examine us and not the other way around. And so we must come once more to Jesus Christ in humility and need and ask that He would change us so that we live for God’s glory. And what confidence we can have when we do this, what joy can be ours as we pledge our loyalty to God and look forward with hope and anticipation to an eternal loving relationship with God and His people.   

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