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The game of "Challenge and Riposte"

Mark 12 shows us something interesting. Have you heard the word “riposte”? It refers to a counter-lunge at someone in a fencing match. But it also means a quick, clever reply to an insult or criticism…a comeback, if you will.

In first-century Greco-Roman culture, honor was very important. Any Roman citizen would be encouraged to build on his honor. Honor could be achieved simply by being born into the right family or being adopted into a family of honor. A high moral character would ensure the honor of others. “Honor” could also “be won and lost in what has been called the social game of Challenge and Riposte.” [1]

We see this take place between Yeshua and religious leaders many times. “The Gospels are full of these exchanges, mainly posed by Pharisees, Sadducees, or other religious officials at Jesus, whom they regarded as an upstart threatening to steal their place in the esteem of the people and whom they, therefore, seek to put back in his place.”[2]

In Mark 12 we see this several times.

1. The chief priest of the elders is so wounded by Yeshua’s parables because they knew he was talking about them that they wanted to arrest him. (By the way, it’s very clear in context that the parable was against the religious leaders, not the people of Israel [am haretz], who by and large, loved Yeshua.) (v. 12)

2. Then they tried to trap them in his words by asking him about taxes. His “riposte” was quick and powerful. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (.17). The people “were amazed at him.” (v. 17).

3. Then the Sadducees tried to stump him regarding marriage and the resurrection. He explains that there will be no marriage in the age to come. And because they don't believe in the resurrection, he threw in another zinger for free, explaining that if God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as opposed to “was” the God... Then Abraham Isaac and Jacob must still be living. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mk 12:27)

4. The final challenger came with a different attitude. He recognizes that Yeshua destroyed his challengers in the “social game of challenge and riposte.” He did not want to be skewered like his friends; this Pharisee asked a question with a desire to learn, as opposed to seeking to win the game. “Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’” (v. 28). They end up having a respectful conversation.

5. Next, Yeshua is able to teach freely without anyone challenging him. By answering the way he did, his honor is greatly increased in the eyes of his hearers. And read the response of the Jews who listened: “The large crowd listened to him with delight” (v. 37).

Mark purposely bundled these interactions together with the very purpose of showing how Yeshua mastered them at their own game. While Yeshua played their game, the kingdom of God is not built on a quest for honor. His message was quite counterculture.

• People long for a noble birth, he was born in a manger (stone feeding trough), in private and some would even say illegitimately to a single mother.

• People sought to build on their honor while he went in the opposite direction. He left heaven for Earth and became a human, even a servant. Whenever his disciples expressed their desire for power and honor, he would rebuke them, reminding them that the last shall be first and “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Matt. 20:26). Their desire for honor was perfectly acceptable in the Hellenistic culture in which they lived, and it was certainly expressed in the pharisaical culture: “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others” (Matt. 23:5-7).

• The most dishonorable, ignoble way to die was crucifixion. It was painful, public, and humiliating. It was an “intentionally degrading death, fixing the criminal’s honor at the lowest end of the spectrum and serving as an effective deterrent to the observers, reminding them of the shameful end that awaits those who similarly deviate from the dominant culture’s values and scripts for subordinates.”[3]


If you read the book of Philippians carefully (Phillipe was a retirement city for Roman soldiers, hence it was steeped in Roman culture), you can see that Paul is addressing this attitude. This is why in chapter two he is pleading for them to humble themselves “by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” And then he asks of them something that goes against everything they have learned since birth: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Php 2:2–4).

For people who were brought up to defend their honor and to seek greater honor, this was ludicrous. Where will Paul find a justifiable example in order to convince them? Maybe with that question in mind, the short hymn that follows makes more sense.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Messiah Yeshua: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Yeshua every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php 2:5–11)
"It is striking, for instance, that when Paul wanted to stop some individuals quarrelling in the church at Philippi, he appealed not to ordinary common sense but to this same notion that God’s behaviour should be the model for human behaviour (Philippians 2:1–11), highlighting the sacrifice that God made by being born into this world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He then proceeded to make that the basis of a moral appeal to his readers: because Jesus had given up everything for them, they ought to be willing to sacrifice their own self-centredness in order to please him." [4]


[1] David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity (p. 19). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] deSilva, 20.

[3] deSilva, 47.

[4] John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (p. 191). Lion Hudson. Kindle Edition.

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Shalom from Israel! I am Ron Cantor and this is my blog. I serve as the President of Shelanu TV.

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