This short passage from Mark describes a typical encounter between Jesus and his opponents, the Pharisees. The Pharisees ask for a sign, that is, a striking phenomenon which is undisputably the work of God. Prophets and leaders through Israel’s history had often asked God for an unmistakeable sign to know they were doing his will. It would seem that the Pharisees wanted this from Jesus. But Jesus refuses. He knows what’s behind this seemingly innocuous question. The Pharisees have already made up their minds that Jesus is a threat to their understanding of the Law, so if they ask for a sign it is just to trip him up, to catch him out. This is no genuine request. It’s the laying of a trap. Their very motives are suspect. Jesus has just worked one of the most impressive signs of all – the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and the feeding of the four thousand. If this does not impress the Pharisees, what will? What are they really after? All through his public ministry Jesus worked many, many signs – his miracles. As signs they pointed to the fact that he had a divine mission and was destined to achieve it. But he didn’t want his miracles to become sensations and distractions. He wanted them to establish a bond of faith between the person healed and himself. It is this bond which saves, not the spectacular sign. But not everyone saw it like that. The Pharisees, especially the Scribes, weren’t humble enough to put their trust in this rabbi from Galilee. They always felt that Jesus had to prove himself even further. Hence their demand for a ‘special sign’, and hence too, Jesus’s stern refusal to give in to that demand.
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