The Parable of the Tenants, 1-12
Mk 12:1 He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.”
The parable records the special privileges given to the Jewish nation. God has given them good and wise laws, godly leaders, gracious promises, and fellowship with himself. We might reflect that we too have been granted many favours by God, and might ask how grateful we are for them, and how positively we have responded to them.
Jesus reworks Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:1-7), directing his parable not against the nation as a whole (as Isaiah does) but against the religious leaders of Jerusalem. In doing so, he may be reflecting a rabbinic interpretation of the Isaiah passage.
This parable is found in all three Synoptic Gospels. Its implied Christology is very important, especially given the tendency of much modern scholarship to doubt that Jesus had, or even could have had, any self-awareness about his divine Sonship. ‘The so-called Parable of the Wicked Tenants could just as well be the Parable of the Son Sent at Last.’ (N.T. Wright, http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_JIG.htm)
The authenticity of this parable is sometimes doubted. The reasons include, ‘the clear presence of allegory in the parable; the precision of the future actions portrayed in the parable (Jesus’ being put to death outside of Jerusalem; the success of the Gentile mission; and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70); the use of an OT quotation in the parable.’ (NAC)
The assumption that Jesus’ parables could not contain allegorical elements is discredited.
‘This parable in effect summarises the whole of the biblical history, including the gospel story.’ (Evans)
This remarkable parable (it’s almost an allegory) summarises many of the key movements in the plot-line of Scripture: the giving of special privileges to Israel; the sending of the prophets; the selfish disobedience of the Jewish leaders; the sending, at last, of God’s own Son; the cruel rejection of the Son; the judgement on Israel and the offer of the gospel to the Gentiles; Christ’s establishment as the foundation-stone of God’s kingdom.
Yet the parable does not merely describe a series of events: it challenges our stewardship of the kingdom-privileges we ourselves have been given.
Note the threefold context of the parable:
(a) the cultural context – it describes an arrangement that was quite common at the time. Hendriksen informs us that the parable describes a situation that was common in the upper Jordan valley, where there were large estates owned by absent landlords. They had given their farms and vineyards into the care of local people and who enjoyed a considerable measure of independence in running them. For his share of the yield the owner was dependent on the honesty and co-operation of the tenants;
(b) the biblical context – The parable is closely related to Isaiah’s ‘Song of the Vineyard’, Isa 5:1-7 (the verbal similarities are even closer in Mark’s version). ‘Later Jewish interpretation came to understand Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard as a prophecy of the destruction of the temple, a prophecy fulfilled when in 586 BC Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. When Jesus utilises the language of this Isaianic parable in order to tell his own parable, his audience cannot help but sense the judgemental tone of the parable. Whereas in Isaiah’s version the vineyard itself (the people) is guilty, in Jesus’ parable it is not the vineyard, but the tenants (= the religious authorities). They are the reason that God does not receive the fruit that is due. The people’s leaders are selfish and disobedient. They will have to be replaced with new leaders who are obedient and responsive to God. This leadership consists, of course, of those whom Jesus has taught. His disciples will replace the old Jerusalem establishment and will servie God and his people more faithfully.’ (Evans)
(c) the biographical context – it comes during the last week of our Lord’s earthly ministry, and reflects his attitude towards, and relationship with, the Jewish leaders and with ‘the people’. Note that although told against Jesus opponents – the teachers of the law and the chief priests, v19 – it is addressed to ‘the people’ (cf 20:1). Some references to ‘the people’ in Lk 3:15,21; 4:31,36,40; 7:29ff; 13:17; 18:43; 19:7,11,47-48; 20:1,6,9,16,19:45; 21:38; 22:2; 23:5,14,35,48.
A vineyard – The process of establishing a vineyard includes: selecting a suitable plot of land; planting it with vines; enclosing it with a wall or fence; digging a wine-press; building a watchtower.
The vineyard symbolises Israel’s favoured status as God’s people.
‘Privilege entails responsibility. The more one receives, the more he must account for. They who had enjoyed so many more favours at the hand of God than other nations, ought to have been just so much better than other nations, and ought to have cheerfully rendered to him the service which he sought. Holy lives, loving service, cheerful and devoted loyalty to himself, – these were the fruits God sought as the return for the giving of the theocracy and its blessings to them.’ (Taylor)
Farmers – The underlying word can mean ‘farmers’ or ‘vinedressers’. The latter is more likely here, given the content of the parable.
A man…went away on a journey – This can scarcely allude to the delay in the Parousia, since it is ‘the man’, and not the son, who went away. Similarly, the judgement referred to in v16 does not fit the final judgement, but to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and to the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles.
Some writers (e.g Taylor) suggest that God was more openly present with his chosen people when they were being established as such at the time of the Exodus, and that he withdrew to the extent that he met less with them face-to-face, more through his prophets. But this line of reasoning may be pushing the detail of the parable too far. Ryle says, ‘This expression must not be pressed too closely. It signifies that as the lord of the vineyard left his vineyard to the occupation of the tenants, so God left the privileges of the Jews to be turned to good account by the nation.’
Mark 12:2 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.
A servant – represents the prophets. On the rejection of the prophets, see Mt 23:29-37; Lk 6:23; 11:49-51; 13:31-35; Acts 7:52.
To collect some of the fruit of the vineyard – This was one of several ways in which tenants might pay a landowner.
Mark 12:3 But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed.
Here is symbolised Israel, especially its leaders, and the shameful treatment of the prophets.
‘In the days of Elijah, Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord, and Ahab subjected Micaiah to the foulest indignity. In the reign of Joash, the people conspired against Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, on whom the Spirit of God came; and they stoned him with stones. Jeremiah was cruely abused by those to whom he went as the messenger of the Lord; and the tradition has always been, that Isaiah was sawn asunder by the order of Manasseh.’ (Taylor)
Mark 12:4 Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully.
Mark 12:5 He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
Mk 12:6 “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’”
“A son, whom he loved” – cf. Lk 3:22; 9:35. We are clearly intended to read this as a reference to Jesus. The identity of Jesus as the Son of God, far from being minimally attested in the Gospels, features quite widely. It is most apparent in passages such as Jn 5, but is perfectly clear in the Synoptics, the present passage shows. See Jn 3:16 Rom 8:32 Gal 4:4 2 Cor 9:15. See also Mt 21:37n.
Heb 1:1f affirms that Jesus is God’s last word in succession to the prophets.
Jesus was sent first of all to Israel, Mt 10:5f, but was rejected by the Jews, Mk 15:12f Jn 1:11 12:37-41 Acts 2:23 4:10.
‘While the point is not explicitly applied, it is hard to believe that after the revelations of Mt 3:17 and Mt 17:5, and after his use of language like Mt 11:27, Jesus could have used the word son in this story without intending it to point to his own relationship with God.’ (France, on Mt 21:37)
‘Probably even the priests realized that it was a claim by Jesus to be the Son of God, because they brought the claim up at his trial and crucifixion. This is one of only two places where Jesus himself indirectly claimed to be the Son of God before his trial, though others (whether disciples or even demons) might have previously recognized him as such.’ (NBC)
Mark 12:7 “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’
“This is the heir” – The tenants assume, perhaps, that the owner has died. By killing the heir, they plan to lay claim to the ownership of the vineyard. ‘Possession in 9/10 of the law.’
If v13 clearly indicates the divine Sonship of Jesus, then this verse indicates his knowledge of the intentions of his enemies, and the following verse the fact that this intentions were carried out. The parable was spoken on the Tuesday before ‘Good Friday’.
Mark 12:8 So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
Mark 12:9 “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.
And give the vineyard to others – These ‘others’ are evidently the Gentiles, Acts 13:45-47; 18:6; 28:25-28.
‘Here the vineyard refers to God’s kingdom, which would be offered to the Gentiles, whose time had now come Lk (21:24). Mt 21:43 elaborates on this, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruits.”‘ (NAC)
‘The vineyard, i.e., the privileged position, once granted to Israel, was subsequently tansferred to the church universal, Mt 21:41; 28:19; Acts 13:46, a truth whose realisation was already foreshadowed when Jesus walked on earth, Mt 8:11f; 15:28; Jn 3:16; 4:41f; 10:16; 17:20f.’ (Hendriksen)
According to Evans, 16a is not about the giving of God’s kingdom to the Gentiles but the giving of the leadership of that kingdom to the disciples. Mt 21:43 would seem to weaken this interpretation.
‘Here, then, is the interpretation of the parable: The householder is God, the vineyard is the theocratic privileges enjoyed by those who were the chosen people of God, and as such were placed by him under the law of Moses; the husbandmen are the Jews themselves; the removal oof the householder into a far country is the withdrawal of God from such open manifestation of himself as he made on Sinai, into “expectant passivity,” waiting for the result to develop itself freely in the choice of the peple themselves; the servants sent were the prophets, who were often cruelly maltreated by those to whom they were commissioned; the son is the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the crucifixion of whom was the climax of the nation’s iniquity, for which the kingdom of God was taken from it, and given to the Gentiles.’ (Taylor)
Mark 12:10 Haven’t you read this scripture: “’The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone;
The quotation is from Ps 118:22. The Messianic reference is picked up in Acts 4:11 and 1 Pet 2:7.
“The stone” – a large building block.
“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” – we cannot but think of the rejection and subsequent vindication of the Messiah.
‘The cornerstone of a building, in addition to being part of the foundation and therefore supporting the superstructure, finalises its shape, for, being placed at the corner formed by the junction of two primary walls, it determines the lay of the walls and crosswalls throughout. All the other stones must adjust themselves to this cornerstone. Such is the relation of Christ to his church. But his glorious resurrection, ascension, and coronation he has become highly exalted, and for his place at the Father’s right hand sends out the Spirit to dwell in the hearts of his followers and to rule over the entire universe in the interest of the church, to the glory of God Triune.’ (Hendriksen)
Mark 12:11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
Mark 12:12 Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.
They looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them – ‘Quite possibly some of the Jewish leaders who heard the parable at first might have wondered if the original tenants stood for the Romans who were occupying their land. By the end they clearly recognized that Jesus was telling this story against them, and so they became enraged.’ (Blomberg)
‘When the hearts of the sons of men are fully set in them to do evil, the fairest warnings both of the sin they are about to commit and of the consequences of it make no impression upon them.’ (MHC)
But they were afraid of the people – This is not surprising, because the people held Jesus to be a prophet, Lk 7:16; had on the previous Sunday been shouting his praise, 19:37f; and on an earlier occasion tried to make him their king, Jn 6:15.
The theological emphases of the parable may be summarised as follows:-
1. Stewardship. The parable exemplies the importance of the right use of gifts and privileges that God has bestowed. ‘Those who enjoy the privileges of the visible church are as tenants and farmers that have a vineyard to look after, and rent to pay for it. God, by setting up revealed religion and instituted orders in the world, hath planted a vineyard, which he lets out to those people among whom his tabernacle is, v9.’ (MHC)
What does stewardship mean for us today? It means that Christian teachers and leaders have a duty to be faithful. They are not called, first and foremost, to creative, innovative, speculative. They are to be faithful stewards of all that God has entrusted them with. They are to ‘keep the faith’, ‘preach the word’. There is a corresponding responsibility for those who sit under Christian ministry. Bearing in mind that this parable was spoken about, the Jewish leaders, but spoken to the ‘the people’, we all have a duty to weigh the words of our teachers, and observe their lives. ‘Beware of the leaven of Pharisees’, said Jesus. ‘You have observed my behaviour,’ said Paul.
2. The continuity of the covenant. The son follows in the footsteps of the prophets who went before him. ‘God sent his Son into the world to carry on the same work that the prophets were employed in, to gather the fruits of the vineyard for God; and one would have thought that he would have been reverenced and received. The prophets spoke as servants, Thus saith the Lord; but Christ as a Son, among his own, Verily, I say unto you. Putting such an honour as this upon them, to send him, one would have thought, should have won upon them.’ (MHC)
3. Israel’s rejection of God’s prophets and of the Messiah. ‘It has often been the lot of God’s faithful servants to be wretchedly abused by his own tenants.’ (MHC)
4. The judgement on Israel and the offer of the gospel to the Gentiles.
‘The most significant teaching found in this parable, however, is its Christology. Whereas the OT prophets are described as servants (Lk 20:11-13), Jesus is described as God’s “beloved son” (Lk 20:13, RSV). He is not simply his favorite servant or his most beloved servant. He is sufficiently different from the OT prophets that a qualitative change of category must be used to describe him. He is not a servant but the Son. Without reading more out of the parable than is warranted, the question of an “ontological” uniqueness of the Son is raised here. Jesus’ unique role as the “Church’s One Foundation” (see Lk 20:17; Acts 4:11-12; Eph 2:20; 1 Cor 3:11) is then shown by the quotation of Ps 118:22. Whether the judgmental role of the stone alludes to the role of the Son of Man in judgment is uncertain, but that each individual will be judged on the basis of his or her attitude toward Jesus is clear. (Lk 9:26 12:8-9 Acts 4:12) The Lukan emphasis on this point is evident, for Lk alone added in 20:18 the allusion to Isa 8:14-15 Dan 2:34-35,44-45. The reference to the Son as Heir (20:14) also has Christological significance, for here Jesus is seen as the future Lord of the vineyard. This lordship over the church and creation is more clearly described elsewhere in the NT, but it is found in Luke-Acts as well.’ (NAC)
Paying Taxes to Caesar, 13-17
Mark 12:13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words.
‘Why did the Herodians, Sadducees, and a scribe ask the questions they asked of Jesus in Mark 12:13–28? The questions related to their separate occupations and beliefs. The Herodians were supported by Herod and the Romans, and so they debated with Jesus about paying taxes to a foreign power (v. 14). The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, and so they sought to silence their opponent by a hypothetical question about a woman who had seven husbands (v. 23). The Jewish scribes were concerned about Old Testament commandments and so one of them asked Him which commandment was the most important (v. 28).’ (Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation)
Mark 12:14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
Mark 12:15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”
Mark 12:16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Mk 12:17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
‘Some modern writers (especially S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, 1967) have tried to show that Jesus’ intentions were in fact political, and that the spiritual nature of his kingship is a later invention in the Gospels to gloss over his real revolutionary aim. While Jesus was certainly not as blind to political and social problems as more pietistic Christians have suggested, Brandon’s view involves a wholesale rewriting of the Gospels on very flimsy grounds. The Jesus of the Gospels was at pains to correct misunderstandings of the nature of his mission, (Mk 8:27-38; 12:35-37; 14:61f) avoided publicity and popular demonstrations until the last week of his ministry, refused to affirm the nationalist position when asked about the validity of Roman taxation, (Mk 12:13-17) and was declared innocent of sedition by the Roman prefect. (Lk 23:13-16) His declared attitude to the Jewish nation of his day, which he regarded as approaching its final punishment for its rejection of God’s messengers in the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, (Lk 11:47-51; 13:25-35, etc.) is quite incompatible with nationalist sympathies. The circumstances of his ministry inevitably laid him open to political suspicion, but there is ample evidence that his own intentions were otherwise, even though some of his followers undoubtedly expected him to adopt a nationalist role.’
Marriage at the Resurrection, 18-27
Mark 12:18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.
Mark 12:19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother.
Mark 12:20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children.
Mark 12:21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third.
Mark 12:22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too.
Mark 12:23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
Mark 12:24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?
Mk 12:25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.
Belief in angels was not universal in Jesus’ day. The Sadducees, for example, disbelieved in angels as well as the resurrection. While siding against the Sadducees on the resurrection, Jesus went out of his way to side against them on the reality of angels as well.
“They will be like the angels in heaven” – ‘Some conclude from this that Jesus believed in a spiritual rather than physical resurrection or that he had a view, like some within Judaism, that in heaven there would be no consciousness of prior existence. However, this reads more into the passage than is intended, since the phrase is contrasting marriage on earth with marriage in heaven rather than teaching the state of the resurrection body.’ (DJG)
In the view of Morna Hooker, Jesus is concerned here with the legal bond of marriage, which (he says) will not continue in the resurrection life. That life will not be diminished, but enriched by far deeper relationships than apply in this life. Milne (The Message of Heaven and Hell) concurs, saying that in the life to come ‘love for others will be marked by that indiscriminate inclusiveness which in the present order the unmarried are uniquely able to reflect.’ It is for this reason that Jesus says that no difficulty will be experienced in the resurrection life by those who have been married more than once in this life.
They will be ‘like the angels’ with regard to their sexual relationships. That is the direct teaching of this passage. But (as Milne says) it is reasonable to assume that we shall be like them in other ways too: in service of God (Lk 19:11-27; Heb 1:14; Rev 22:3), and in worship (Isa 6; Rev 4). The immense power and capabilities of angels (Dan 10:4-9; Rev 19:4) suggests that ‘the heavenly order will open us to new gifts and abilities, which in new, exciting and enriching ways will further contribute to the glory of our God.’
Mark 12:26 Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?
Mark 12:27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”
“God…of the living” – Jesus is himself ‘the life’, and he is the Giver of ‘eternal life’. Death will be ‘swallowed up by life’ (Isa 25:8; 1 Cor 15:54). As Milne says, one aspect of this ‘life’ will be its communal aspect, as evident in the image of heaven as a perfect city (Heb 13:14); a victorious kingdom (Heb 12:28); a holy temple (Eze 40-48); and a wedding feast (Rev 19:7).
The Greatest Commandment, 28-34
Mark 12:28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Mark 12:29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Mark 12:30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
Mark 12:31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.
Mark 12:33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Mark 12:34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
Whose Son is the Christ? 35-40
Mark 12:35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, “How is it that the teachers of the law say that the Christ is the son of David?
Mark 12:36 David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: “’The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
Mark 12:37 David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?” The large crowd listened to him with delight.
Mark 12:38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces,
Mark 12:39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.
The most important seats in the synagogues – ‘“The most important seats in the synagogues” refers to the benches along the walls of the synagogues, and especially to the dais at the front of the synagogue, which faced the congregation seated on the floor in the middle of the synagogue. These “first seats,” as they were called in Greek, were reserved for teachers and persons of rank, and afforded the best position from which to address the congregation.’ (Edwards)
Mark 12:40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”
The Widow’s Offering, 41-44
Mark 12:41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.
Mark 12:42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
Mark 12:43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.
Mark 12:44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
“She…put in everything” – She might easily have kept back one of the two coins for herself, but she did not.
The usual approach is to understand Jesus as commending sacrificial giving. Edwards, for example, says that the main point is the woman’s modelling of discipleship: ‘No gift, whether of money, time, or talent, is too insignificant to give, if it is given to God. And what is truly given to God, regardless how small and insignificant, is transformed into a pearl of great price. What may look like a great gift, conversely, may in reality be little in comparison with what one could give. The widow’s giving “ ‘all she had’ ” is a true fulfillment of the call to discipleship to follow Jesus by losing one’s life (Mk 8:35). The final Greek words of the chapter might be paraphrased, “she lay down her whole life.” That is what Jesus will do on Golgotha.’
Hurtado takes a similar approach: ‘The virtue of the widow’s gift lies in her giving all she had (v. 44), illustrating for the disciples the wholesale commitment p 207 for which Jesus called (e.g., Mk 8:34–9:1; 10:28–31). Her action exemplifies the complete devotion spoken about in Mk 12:28–34, where it is hinted that commitment to God is not to be measured in the impressiveness of the sacrificial gift one is able to offer (v. 33). The elevation of this simple”] woman to such an exemplary place captures the essence of Jesus’ words that in God’s judgment “many who are … last [will be] first” (Mk 10:31).’
So also Hooker: ‘The story is a reminder to Mark’s readers that the humblest and poorest of them can make a worthy offering to God.’
And also Wright, who suggests in addition that ‘when we read this story in the light of Jesus’ riddle about David’s Lord and David’s son we discover a strange affinity. One might have thought she was ‘merely’ putting in p 176 two copper coins, but in fact she was putting in everything she had. One might have thought the Messiah was ‘merely’ David’s son—a human king among other human kings. But in fact, in the Messiah, Israel’s God has given himself totally, given all that he had and was.’
Writing in the Women’s Bible Commentary, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon says: ‘Later interpreters misuse this poor widow by making her the model for a stewardship campaign. She is, rather, an image of the demands and risks of discipleship that Jesus has proclaimed and is, at the moment of his telling of her story, in the midst of enacting—giving his whole life.’
Matt Anslow, however, suggests an alternative approach. Note the context: this incident in preceded by Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes (vv38-40) and is followed by his prediction of the destruction of the temple (Mk 13:1f). Note also that Jesus does not commend the woman’s giving. It looks, then, as if his teaching is meant not as a celebration, but as a lament. The woman had given all that she had. Quite possibly, she would have nothing to eat for several days to come. Her wealth, such as it was, had been ‘devoured’ (v40) by those responsible for the temple treasury. An institution that should have protected her, exploited her. This interpretation, it has to be said, is consistent with Jesus’ more general critique of the temple and its institutions.
Garland (NIVAC) is content with understanding this story as an example of sacrificial giving. Yet he agrees that ‘one can give this incident a quite different spin, which laments that this widow gives so sacrificially to this den of thieves. The woman is to be praised, but giving sacrificially to a corrupt, spiritually bankrupt, and oppressive temple is to be lamented. She exhibits unquestioning devotion to the temple, a fruitless cause that exploits her. The high priests live in luxury on their cut from the contributions made by the poor. Hers is a misguided gesture, a case of the poor giving to the rich, the victim lining the pockets of the oppressor. The costs to operate this extravagant temple are therefore one of the things that “devour the resources of the poor.”
The approach taken in Harper’s Bible Commentary also suggests that this story might be taken in more than one way: ‘The incident provides the bridge between Jesus’ attacks on the Temple and its authorities, Mark 11-12, and the predictions of the destruction of the Temple in Mark 13. It also prepares for the woman who anoints Jesus in Jerusalem who, like the widow, gave “what she had” (Mk 14:8; cf. 12:44) and for the discipleship of other women during the passion narrative (Mk 15:40-41, 47; 16:1-8).’