Mark places the Jewish leaders’ initial questioning of Jesus’ authority (Mark 11:27–33) and the Lord’s parable of the wicked tenants (which the other synoptics present on Monday) after the withering of the fig tree on Tuesday. Then Mark’s account rejoins the sequence of Matthew and Luke, which focuses on the attempts of the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees to trap Jesus in his words. Whether the question was about the paying of taxes to Rome, the reality of the resurrection (particularly in the hypothetical case of a woman who had successively married seven men), or the greatest commandment of the law, Jesus gives responses that silence his opponents.
This verbal sparring about authority points back to the reality symbolized by Jesus’ earlier triumphal entry: He is the rightful leader in Israel, whereas the chief priests and elders opposed to him are usurpers who have set themselves up as leaders of Israel, both in Jerusalem and in the temple. Now, in the midst of the preparations leading to Passover, the questioning of Jesus in the temple presents another layer of symbolism. In the days between the selection of the Passover lambs five days before Passover and their sacrifice when the holiday began, the chosen animals were kept separate from the rest of the flocks (Exodus 12:3–6). Because the lambs were to be without blemish, in Jesus’ day the priests in the temple spent this time examining them carefully for fault. While this very examination of the paschal lambs was going on during Jesus’ last week, his opponents were, in fact, trying to find fault in him.
After the leaders of Jerusalem fail to catch Jesus with their questions, he, in turn, questions them about the identity of the Messiah, or Christ: “While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The Son of David. He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, the Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son? And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:41–46; cf. Psalm 110:1).
Jesus’ challenge proves impossible for his opponents to answer. Despite their examination of him, they fail to recognize the Son of David, their king, before them. But Jesus’ question implies something about the Messiah that they apparently have not considered: though he will physically be David’s descendant, even before David lived, he was already the Christ and David’s Lord.
The leaders’ inability, or refusal, to answer Jesus’ question is followed by Jesus’ scathing denunciation of these leaders of apostate Israel (Matthew 23:1–36; Mark 12:38–40; Luke 20:45–47). Matthew preserves a lengthy condemnation of both the Pharisees and the scribes, which includes prophetic woes against them and against Jerusalem itself. In Mark and Luke, Jesus’ denunciation is focused on the scribes, whose behavior is compared negatively to the humble generosity of a poor widow who, in a touching scene, is praised for giving all that she has as an offering to the Lord (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 21:1–4).