What does Mark chapter 12 mean?Jesus spends this entire chapter explaining that the Jewish religious and civil leaders are not nearly as wise or honorable as they claim to be. Their lack of understanding about what God values and intends for the world leads them to reject the truth they claim to teach. They turn obedience to God into a method for accruing honor from people.
In the parable of the tenants, Jesus explains how the Jewish leaders have assumed authority and control over the religious and civil systems that God means them to be stewards of. When God sent prophets to bring the Israelites' loyalties back toward God, the leaders abused and murdered the prophets. God has now sent His Son, and they will do the same to Him. The leaders seem to think that if God has no more representatives, they will be free to rule as they wish. They don't realize that God's plan has always been to expand His attentions to the whole world, and if the Jewish leaders won't be a part of the plan, they will be removed (Mark 12:1–12).
The Pharisees and Herodians give Jesus the chance to expound on this theme when they ask if the Mosaic law permits Jews to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus disappoints both sects by ignoring the possibility of an autonomous Jewish theocracy and separating the honor due God from that which is due the king. This is especially important to the church as we live as Christ-followers in secular society (Mark 12:13–17).
On the surface, the Pharisees dismiss worldly position for spiritual authority. The Sadducees, who believe there is no resurrection, combine the two. In the context of a logic puzzle about levirate marriages, Jesus reveals that the Sadducees—the sect that produces most of the high priests—don't understand the nature of God's relationship to His people. They don't trust that God has made His people for something bigger than just this world. Without an afterlife, the Sadducees find meaning only in power on earth (Mark 12:18–26).
One scribe of the Pharisees shows that he does understand; at least, he understands the purpose of the Mosaic law. He understands that knowing and loving God and loving people is the basis for all the rules God gave regarding behavior. Unfortunately, he doesn't yet follow the thread to the conclusion that God also loves him and has sent His Son to save him. Not even the work of love can earn salvation (Mark 12:28–34).
At this point, none of the Jewish religious or civil leaders dare challenge Jesus further. Jesus takes charge of the conversation by pointing out a specific area in which the scribes misunderstand Scripture. For a while, now, scribes have referred to the Messiah as the "son of David." They miss the part in Psalm 110:1 that reveals the Messiah is also David's Lord. This section seems like a non-sequitur, but it primes the audience for a more comprehensive criticism of their religious experts (Mark 12:35–37).
Mark next describes how Jesus roundly criticizes how the scribes misunderstand their position. They are supposed to be teaching the people how to honor and worship God so God can bless them. Instead, their entitled demeanor invites the people to honor them, while they cheat the powerless. Where Mark gives a short synopsis of the scribes' abuses, Matthew 23 goes into much more detail, and finishes with Jesus' lament of how the leaders in Jerusalem have rejected the prophets and sealed the temple's doom (Mark 12:38–40).
Mark next shows Jesus highlighting a woman who is the exact opposite of these foolish leaders. Out of honor to God, a widow donates the last of her meager funds. She has no expectation that she will receive any earthly honor; in fact, she may be scorned for giving so little. But Jesus commends her for giving more to God than any of the leaders who have supposedly dedicated their lives to God's service (Mark 12:41–44).
This chapter marks the last time Jesus is recorded teaching in the temple courtyard and the last public teaching of His ministry. After this, He will teach His disciples on the Mount of Olives (Mark 13), be anointed one last time (Mark 14:3–9), eat the Passover with His disciples (Mark 14:12–25), and face the crucifixion. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, chief priests, and scribes reject Jesus as they have rejected God's will. But in the course of ensuring Jesus' execution, they also provide the means by which God can forgive them and reconcile them to Himself.