Mark 12:38-44

Commentary Excerpt by Tom Boomershine

This story is a concrete instance of Jesus' formula, "Many who are first will be last and the last first." The scribes are first in Jesus' culture. The audience is addressed as the crowd in the temple. You may want to indicate the grandness of the temple in your introduction to the story. Jesus' warning is to the crowd and in Mark's context, to his audience.

The dynamics of distance in relation to the scribes are very clear. Jesus is seeking to create distance from the scribes who were respected authority figures in both his day and in Mark's day. This saying about the scribes follows the one positive encounter between Jesus and the scribes in the whole the Gospel of Mark: the story of the scribe who came and asked Jesus, "Teacher which is the first and greatest commandment?" Of Jesus' response scribe says, "You have answered well, Teacher, that to love God is more than all burnt offerings and sacrifice." And Jesus said, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." This is a positive rabbinic discussion about the priority of the law. A critique of the scribes then follows.

The critique may also be addressed to the scribes in Jesus' audience and in Mark's audience. Their role was to write legal documents and to issue rulings on the legal dimensions of the Torah. They were a small elite of literate culture. Relatively few people could read in Jesus' culture, 10-15% at most, and of those who could read, a much smaller percentage were able to write anything more than their name. The scribes were the masters of the skills of literate culture. They had power and were prosperous as are many lawyers now.

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