Morning Musing: Mark 12:35-37

“While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he asked, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself says by the Holy Spirit: “The Lord declared to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.'” David himself calls him “Lord”; how then can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

I remember playing school with my sister one time when I was growing up. I was the teacher and she was the student (which of course is how it worked since I was the older brother and it was my natural right to assign positions between us). I made up a math worksheet for her to do. Feeling a bit prideful in my own abilities, I created an entire sheet of math I had recently learned in class. It was a subtle, jerky way of telling her how much more than her I knew. She couldn’t answer any of them. My own kids occasionally do that to each other. It must be a sibling rite of passage. In a larger sense, though, there’s just nothing quite like a well-placed question to reveal ignorance. The religious leaders were smugly confident in their understanding of the law and of the nature of the Messiah. One question from Jesus, however, stripped them of that entirely. Let’s see how this morning.

All day the religious leaders had been in the driver’s seat. Well, Jesus had let them feel like they were in the driver’s seat. They had been the ones asking the questions. They were doing their absolute best to find the question that would finally lead to Jesus’ downfall. They thought they had a knockout blow from the start with the question about taxes from the Pharisees and the Herodians, but that wound up just being a slow pitched softball that got rocketed to the moon. The rest of their questions weren’t accomplishing anything more significant than giving Jesus some rhetorical batting practice. They had gotten so worn down and desperate that they even left an opening for the weird guy who always sat at his desk working instead of joining in their conversations to slip in his own question about the greatest command. Then he had the temerity to praise Jesus’ answer.

Things weren’t going well. But Jesus wasn’t slowing down. He didn’t even look tired. Much to the contrary, He looked like He was enjoying Himself. What gall! As hard as they were working to bring Him down, the least He could do was to look like they were at least having an impact on Him. Then things went from bad to worse. Jesus declared it was time to switch sides.

This is a rare instance when Matthew’s telling toward the end of Matthew 22 is actually more detailed than Mark’s. Mark presents Jesus just kind of asking this question out of the blue. Matthew’s introduction makes it a bit more poignant. From Matthew 22:41: “While the Pharisees were together, Jesus questioned them.” He turned the tables now entirely. He revealed that He was really the one in the driver’s seat here. If they could spend all morning peppering Him with the hardest questions they could imagine in hopes of revealing a chink in His armor, it was His turn. He was going to ask them a simple question. “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

Well, that was a simple question. Everyone knew the answer to that. What was His game here? “David,” they said. Because that was the only answer. The Messiah was going to be the son of David. The Scriptures were as clear on that point as they could possibly be. After lobbing one over the plate at them and letting them give it a whack, though, Jesus pulled out His heater. The next pitch streaked by them so fast they couldn’t even see it. They blinked and missed it entirely. The summary version of the question is this: If the Messiah is really supposed to be David’s son, why does he call Him “Lord”?

A bit of cultural background here helps this make a bit more sense for us. Put this in the context of the fifth commandment for children to honor their mothers and fathers. A father would never refer to his son like this. Ever. Sons called their fathers lord, but never the other way around. Yet right here in the Psalms, David prophetically refers to the Messiah as Lord. The Pharisees and scribes and other religious leaders all knew this verse. They knew all of the Scriptures. But they had never thought about it in quite these terms before. This was Jesus revealing to them – in front of all the people no less – that for all their knowledge of the Scriptures, they were still at an elementary level compared to Him.

And that, I think, is the secret to understanding this passage. I’ll be honest: I’ve struggled with this passage. Actually, until this morning, I wasn’t even going to try and write about these verses. I was just going to skip them and go on to the next section. This little story is one I’ve long struggled to understand. I’ve always wondered why Jesus asked this question. I mean, I could offer an answer to it. Unlike the first century Jewish religious authorities, I understand the Scriptures well enough through the lens of the New Testament – something to which they did not have access – that I could have responded to Him if I had been standing there knowing what I know now. The trouble for the religious elite was their thinking about the nature of the Messiah was all wrong. They were imagining Him in purely human terms and those just weren’t going to get them to the truth.

The trick here, though, is that Jesus didn’t really want an answer. He knew they couldn’t answer this question. The answer to the question was irrelevant. The whole point of this question was to reveal ignorance. It was to knock the Jewish religious leaders down a peg or two. It was to reveal to the people and to themselves that they weren’t nearly so smart as they believed themselves to be when it came to the things of God. They were looking at things through an old, broken lens and so all their answers were old and broken. It wasn’t that they weren’t as dedicated to God as they thought themselves to be. It was that they were pridefully assuming they knew Him and understood His plans a whole lot better than they actually did.

That all being said, what are we supposed to do with this? Is this just a story from the final week of Jesus’ life to give us information, or is there more to it? Well, at the risk of badly oversimplifying this passage, although there is no shortage of analyses of what Jesus was doing here, I think the real point for us to take away is that we should be wary in our own lives of falling to the same pride that tripped up the Jewish religious leaders here. They had become so confident in their own assessments of the Scriptures that they couldn’t see anything else. They were unable to accept they had blind spots in their vision and angrily reacted to attempts to fill these in by someone who genuinely knew more than they did.

The point here isn’t that we should never claim certainty when it comes to our understanding of the Scriptures. I don’t believe that’s the case at all. It is fashionable in some circles to intentionally hold so lightly to our understanding of Scripture that we are willing to water it down to nothing at all. That is as unnecessary as it is unwise. There are absolutely some things about the Scriptures we can know as certain. But we should be humble in our assessments. We can’t see everything and we don’t know everything. We should be open for God’s leading through the Holy Spirit to deepen our level of understanding every single time we come to the text. If we go in certain of what we’ll find, there’s a good chance we’ll find it, but there’s also a good chance we’ll miss out on something else God wants to reveal. He may do that through a fellow brother or sister in Christ, or He may do it directly, but we should be open to it either way. As soon as we start thinking we have reached our max, we’re setting ourselves up for an embarrassing fall…just like these religious leaders encountered. All Scripture is indeed God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Let’s make sure we’re listening with enough humility to benefit from it as we go.

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