Between the presentation of the Triumphal Entrance (11:1-11) and the Passover in 14:1ff, Mark records for us a vigorous debate in the Temple between Jesus and the religious leaders, who were intent on exposing Jesus as a messianic pretender. The events commencing in 11:27 and running through 12:44 form one literary unit which demonstrates the religious leaders' hatred toward and rejection of Jesus. While the "attack" on Jesus was fueled in part by His cleansing of the Temple (11:12-19), the fire of conflict between the leaders and Jesus had been burning well before this (cf. Mark 3:6). The temple scene in 11:27-12:44 lies sandwiched between bookends—the withered fig tree at the beginning (11:20-26) and the prophesied destruction of Jerusalem at the end (13:1-37)—the former portending the latter! The withered fig tree forshadows Israel's punishment for unbelief as finally made certain in chapter 13. The Temple scene in 11:27-12:44 demonstrates the reason for the impending judgment: the rejection of God's Messiah.
In the interest of space, this study is concerned only with the first two groups who came to Jesus in the Temple: those from the Sanhedrin (11:27-12:12), and those from among the ranks of the Pharisees and the Herodians (12:13-17). We will conclude with a brief discussion of some applications which arise out of the passage.
The religious leaders (i.e., representatives from the Sanhedrin) came to Jesus intent on getting from him answers to two questions: 1) What were his credentials (cf. 1:22, 27)? 2) Who gave him the authority to do these things? After all, by what authority or power did Jesus act in the Temple, since he had no official status or political authority. Several things may be noted about these two questions: 1) the very fact that the leaders asked the questions demonstrates that Jesus had personally maintained his identity as a secret (cf. 1:43-45; 8:30; 9:9; 12:1, 12), in order that he be properly understood and not according to erroneous messianic conceptions of the day. Unfortunately, the leaders of Israel, as a whole, never came to realize who he was; 2) the reference to these things probably alludes to the Temple cleansing the previous day (11:15-17) as well as to his entire ministry of healing and exorcisms, and preaching and teaching the kingdom of God; 3) it is highly unlikely that they were really interested in the answer to these two questions, save only insofar as they might trap him and expose him as a false teacher before the people. Remember, they were looking for a way to put him to death, especially in the light of his treatment of the Sabbath (3:1-5).
In keeping with current Rabbinic methods of discourse and debate, Jesus responds with his own question—a question which proves to be too humiliating for the "would-be" detractors. Jesus asks them a question about John's baptism (i.e., a question about his authority): "Was it from heaven, or from men?" Their response is completely prompted by their fear of the people and a total disregard for the evidence at hand. In short, they punted. If they admitted that John was a prophet, as the people believed, the conclusion was inevitable: Jesus was the Messiah, for Jesus was the One to whom John gave witness. If they disowned John, the people would react against them. Caught in the middle, without the courage or spiritual insight to concede to the obvious, they refused to acknowledge what they knew to be true. Notice Jesus' reaction to their "We don't know" statement in v. 33a. He does not say, "Neither do I know," but says, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." They knew; they just weren't about to tell Jesus, and thereby admit before the crowd that they had been openly persecuting the Messiah.
The following parable proves that they knew who he really was (cf. 12:7 and 12), but were unwilling to bow the knee to God's messenger. Remember that Jesus had personally refrained from the title Messiah during his ministry in Mark's Gospel, lest the people conjure up false expectations of Messiah and fill the office with erroneous views of his person and work. This does not mean that the concept of him as Messiah is not in the Gospel (on the contrary, note the regal implications at his baptism in the "son" language of psalm 2. See also Peter's confession in 8:29, though Jesus did not develop this, but instead warned them not to reveal his identity). Jesus had to die (10:45) and it is unlikely that the Jews entertained notions of the Messiah dying on a Roman cross. He was supposed to be their instrument of deliverance from Rome, not the one who suffered at the hands of the Gentiles.
It is clear from 12:1 that Jesus spoke this parable against the members of the Sanhedrin. It is, however, in the light of verses 2-5 and v. 6, also a statement of Israel's redemptive history and the vicious manner in which she has consistently treated the prophets (cf. 8:28) and now the manner in which she will undoubtedly tend to the Son. The religious leaders are in effect, fulfilling the position left to them by the wicked leaders of Israel's past who killed the prophets and servants God sent to her.
The first verse (12:1) makes it clear that there is a connection between the parable and Isaiah 5:1-7. The landowner is God, the tenants are the religious leaders, the servants sent are the prophets and the son is Jesus. There are several points in the parable, but the overall thrust seems to be a judgment against the leaders for their treatment of God's messengers (despite the fact that God has taken good care of his vineyard Israel and done everything necessary to ensure her spiritual success in relationship with him) and the pronouncement of the sentence that the vineyard will be handed over to others. The reference to "others" (a[lloi") may denote the church, which was later to become the "temple in which God dwells (1 Cor 3:16), the inheritor of promise (Gal 3:29)—the vineyard in which God would grow his fruit, but not necessarily so at this point. The parable may simply have in mind a future Israelite generation which would produce the fruit of the vineyard in keeping with God's design. But, Jesus' use of Psalm 118:22 as testimony to the pattern of revelation/rejection/judgment in verse 11 combined with its use in the early church in a similar way (cf. Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7), may argue for the former, i.e., that the church is in mind.
The conclusion of the interchange between Jesus and the members of the Sanhedrin is the latter's recognition that the parable had been spoken against them. The result was the desire to arrest him, but they were unable to do so because of their fear of the crowd. The parable as a whole is testimony to God's gracious striving with sinners, which grace, if consistently spurned, ends in ruin for the objects of his judgment, yet opportunity for others (cf. Romans 9-11).
Members of the Sanhedrin were not the only leaders threatened by Jesus. The Pharisees and the Sadducees also wanted an opportunity to attack him and "catch him in his words." They too end up sadly disappointed as their attempts amount to very little.
The text says that "they sent" some of the Pharisees and Herodians to catch Jesus in his words. The pronoun "they" probably refers back to members of their own group, or perhaps even members of the Sanhedrin. Both possibilities, nonetheless, reveal a thoroughgoing conspiracy to "get rid of" Jesus.
It is interesting that the first word out of their mouths is to affirm that Jesus is a man of integrity, since they obviously were not. The fact that they would unite with one another, having previously disavowed each other, is testimony enough to their hypocrisy. Further, their reference to Jesus as a teacher and a man of integrity; one who taught the way of God in truth without being swayed by men, takes their hypocrisy to ironic proportions. They applauded Jesus for not being swayed by men (albeit to trap him), but they were guilty of just that in their denial of John's ministry because they feared the crowds, i.e., they allowed themselves to be swayed away from the truth because of the opinion of men—even though the men (i.e., crowd) knew and espoused the truth!!!!!!
Their carefully crafted statement was designed to force Jesus to answer their difficult question and in so doing certainly entangle himself in an inescapable snare. In their minds, he was cornered, a helpless prey. If he said "yes" to paying the tax (i.e., the Poll tax instituted in AD 6; cf. Josephus, Ant. 18. 1. 1), the people might disavow him as the Messiah, whom they thought was supposed to bring deliverance from Rome, not submission to it. After all, the payment of tribute to Rome, was an affront to Jewish notions of God's sovereignty and Jewish political autonomy. If he said "no", he would incite charges of treason against himself from the Roman authorities. The issue was a deeply emotional issue for Judeans and the leaders knew it (even though the Pharisees paid the tax for expedient purposes; cf. Acts 5:37). The Pharisees were probably interested in the religious/doctrinal implications of the question while the Herodians were motivated by the political aspects of the question. What neither expected, of course, was Jesus' answer.
Jesus was not caught off guard, even for a moment, but immediately called them on their hypocrisy. While the question he puts forward is undoubtedly asked with exasperation, and was indeed rhetorical, the leaders never address the implicit accusation regarding their evil.
Jesus asks them for a denarius in order that he might look at it. The fact that no one had a denarius on his person does not necessarily imply, as some have inferred, that the leaders had forbidden people to have one so that they might not gaze upon its image. In any event, the denarius was a small silver coin, probably with Tiberius' (AD 14-37) image on one side along with the Latin inscription: "Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus." On the reverse side was written: "Chief Priest." It appears that the inscription had its origin in the cult of emperor worship and was odious to a Jew.
Having looked at the coin, Jesus asked the leaders whose inscription was on it. They replied, "Caesar's." Since Caesar owned the coin and since the Jews benefited from the use of his money and his government, they ought therefore to give it back to him. Jesus had made his point and the leaders were left staring at each other.
There is one other point in Jesus' concluding remark that needs to be addressed. He not only commanded them to pay to Caesar what is rightfully his, but also to give to God what is rightfully his (v. 17). Whose image is inscribed on man? Is it not God's. Who then has the ultimate authority over our lives? To whom is tribute due? The ironic result of Jesus' teaching was that even the leaders who had come to trap him were amazed at his teaching.
There have been several proposals put forth by scholars to articulate the purpose for which Mark wrote. Some argue that it was primarily for doctrinal reasons, others say he wrote for catechetical purposes, and still others argue for a variety of reasons: liturgical, ecclesiastical, or apologetic purposes. It seems reductionistic, however, to argue for a single purpose to the exclusion of the others, but it is safe to say that a pastoral concern is strong in the presentation of Jesus, the emphasis on discipleship, and the character of the disciples in the Gospel. With that in mind, we can see that there are several applications that flow from this text to us today as believers.
The Christians in Rome (i.e., the destination of Mark) had undoubtedly experienced struggles as a result of their Christian faith. The portrayal of the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders in Mark 11:27-12:44, and in particular in the two episodes that we looked at (11:27-12:17), should encourage both them and us to continue to testify to the truth and not buckle under the pressure of the opinions of others. We must continue, in love and humility, to show forth all faith to be good (Titus 2:10), and to be willing to live out the life Christ offers us. We must also graciously testify to his saving grace, never violating the fruit of the Spirit to share His message. When we are confronted with difficult people, we must rejoice that our Savior has gone ahead of us, but we must also attempt to engage them in dialogue over the issues. We do not need to demand that we be heard, but only request that we be granted an audience (cf. 1 Cor 13:4-7; Titus 3:1-10; 1 Pet 3:8-17): if they will not listen, may God help us to love them more; if they are willing to listen, may God help us to present the gospel in a timely and compassionate fashion.
In short, we must continue in genuine faith, much like Mark's description of the widow in 12:41-44, who stands in marked contrast to the unbelieving religious leaders.