Mark 12 begins with the parable of tenants in a vineyard (12:1-12) who, after abusing a variety of their landlord’s slaves and servants finally kill his son in hopes of claiming the vineyard as their own. The landlord comes and puts out these tenants before turning it over to new tenants – and this upsets the Pharisees, because they recognize that he is speaking about them. This parable offers a very succinct summary of salvation history leading up to the time of Christ. Over and over again, God’s chosen people – Israel (the “vineyard” in question) – had rejected prophet after prophet sent by God to steer them aright… and they were about to do the same to the Son. A quick reading of this parable sees the transition to Christianity… but if we look deeper, it ought to bring up a question in each of us: are we willing to welcome Christ when He comes, or are we too comfortable and concerned with our own well-being? For those in positions of authority in the Church, it’s a reminder that this vineyard is not ours – and we must always remain good stewards of that which He entrusts to us.
Next, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking if it is lawful – morally just – to pay taxes to the emperor (12:13-17). This is a big question for Israel at that time as Caesar regarded himself to be a god… and to pay tribute to him would seem to run afoul of the first commandment (thou shalt not have other gods). Jesus explains that faith is not an excuse to neglect civic duties. It is our task as His followers to be in the world but not of it – which means (so long as what’s asked of you by the state doesn’t go against our faith and morals) that being good Christians AND good citizens are not opposed ideals. There is perhaps no better example of this than St. Thomas More, the chancellor of England and a faithful friend of King Henry VIII’s who refused to submit to Henry’s state Church above the rule of the Vatican. His famous statement at his execution summed this up: I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.
Then, the Sadducees try to trap Jesus with a rather convoluted question about death and marriage (12:18-27). Since the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection (which is why they are so sad, you see…) they present Jesus a scenario where a woman marries every one of seven brothers successively following one of their deaths. Jesus replies that no one is married in Heaven (12:25) – and that they have missed the point when it comes to the resurrection. When it comes down to it, they ask this question because man tends to give excessive reliance to reason without giving due attention to revelation and God’s power. Our faith in the resurrection is audacious – the belief that not only is our soul immortal, but that some day our bodies will rise – and it can be hard to really understand what this means. It might be said that it is as hard to conceive of what life will be like in eternity as it is for a baby to understand life outside the womb. The baby hears the voice of its mother and senses some hints… of those whom it will encounter on the outside, but nothing can prepare it for what will come on the day of his or her birth.
After going on the defensive, Jesus then answers a question about which commandment is the most important (12:28-34). His answer is essentially the name of this website: Love God first, love your neighbor second (and therefore, I am third.) These two dimensions of His commandment to love – God and neighbor – might be represented by the vertical and horizontal bars of the cross – that we are concerned with those around us (horizontal) as well as the God who is above us (vertical). We are living our faith properly so long as both axis’ are being cared for. Jesus goes on to teach that as David’s descendent (12:35-37), He does fulfill the prophecies – particularly what was written in Psalm 110, that “the Lord said to my Lord” – that David was speaking to the Messiah, who was an even greater Lord than David was himself.
Finally, in Mark 12:38-44, Jesus contrasts the hypocrisy of the scribes with the generous humility of the widow: though temporally her gift is smaller than that of the scribes, she has in fact given all that she has to give. It’s important to remember here that God always looks to our hearts… and the temptation to make ourselves look good without really giving anything to God.