Beware the Scribes
The Jewish leaders had been unsympathetic towards Jesus from the moment he set out to accomplish his ministry. From the earliest days of that ministry they had tried to do away with him sometimes with physical violence and sometimes with open hostility and opposition to what he said and did.
Jesus had had to put up with their grumbling and with their scheming. He had been subjected to their close scrutiny as they tried again and again to catch him out. He had dealt patiently with them and answered their questions but he knew that there was only ever going to be one outcome – they would reject him and organise his death. And that time was now very close. Time was running out – not so much for Jesus but for the scribes themselves!
The scribes, along with the other elements of the Jewish leadership, had made up their minds about Jesus: he was a dangerous man and they wanted to stop him at all costs. Knowing this and knowing that the end was fast approaching Jesus spoke out. He addressed his words and his instructions directly to his followers but he didn’t do so in secret. He issued a warning to his disciples about the scribes and scribal religion in general and he did so in the hearing of the people. The battle lines were clearly drawn up and no-one could be left in any doubt – Jesus and the scribes were enemies.
Jesus Assessment of the Scribes and their Religion
Jesus considered the scribes to be a dangerous threat to the spiritual well-being of all those who were wanted to have a true spiritual relationship with God. These men occupied positions of influence and power in the religious life of the nation and yet in Jesus’ estimation they had got things profoundly wrong. Their values were wrong, the lives they lived were wrong and the example they left for others to follow was wrong. They were so wrong in fact that Jesus had to tell his disciples to be very careful that they did not allow themselves to be influenced by what the Scribes did or how they justified their behaviour. The important watch word was: "beware" "be on your guard".
Jesus went on to explain why such watchfulness was necessary. And while we don’t have Jewish scribes to deal with in our day the attitude that dominated their lives and directed their behaviour is nevertheless still prevalent.
In Jesus’ estimation these men were corrupt and exercised their authority in a corrupt manner. These are the prominent features that Jesus saw fit to criticise in the Scribes?
Like to walk around in long robes
and they love:
greetings in the marketplaces
the best seats in the synagogues
the places of honour at feasts
devour widows’ houses
make long prayers as a pretence
If we take the time to think a little about this we notice that what dominates the outlook of the scribes is their own self- and selfish interest. A trait of corrupt leaders down through history is their obsession with their own self-importance.
These scribes were concerned about how others would respond to them and how others would treat them. To this end they wore their distinctive clothing that was designed to set them apart from everyone else – it was all a matter of outward show. It is interesting to note too that the "wearing of long robes" would make manual work nigh on impossible. In their eyes it was very much a case of the clothes making the man. And they liked to think of themselves as being the VIPs of the local community.
They wanted the recognition of others as they walked through the markets – after all they were important weren’t they? How many people would bow to them today and greet them today?
They wanted to occupy the best seats in the religious meetings that took place in the synagogues – not for them an ordinary position but a place right at the front where they could both see and, of course, be seen.
But although they were primarily members of the religious ruling class they also wanted the public honour that was associated with invites to feasts etc. Once again they wanted seats at the best table.
How easily some people can slip into this mode! Never happier than when others are looking up to them and showing them the respect they like to think they deserve – never content unless they are involved in some self-serving activity. Preening themselves like religious peacocks.
And the list of Jesus’ criticisms goes on becoming more serious as it does so. Not only were they corrupt in their self-centredness they were corrupt in the way they callously disregarded the vulnerable in society.
Jesus refers to them as "devouring widows’ houses" and he is probably referring to the way in which the scribes failed most dismally to fulfil the law’s requirements concerning these women who were indeed some of the most vulnerable people in society.
It was fairly common for widows to be regarded as somehow under the punishment of God and with such a mindset prevailing the hardships of an already difficult life situation could easily be exacerbated. In Jesus’ day a widow was not allowed to inherit late husband’s property though she might be able to benefit from it if a legal trust was set up under the management of a scribe. Scribes were not above charging important management fees for this "service" and thus could take advantage of the very people they should have been most concerned to protect. But it didn’t matter to them – after all widows had little clout in society and they couldn’t offer much in the way of honour and respect, those things that the scribes held in such esteem and longed to receive.
All the while they maintained their religious façade – they had to keep up appearances now, didn’t they, so they prayed their long hypocritical prayers in public – all had to be done to secure the plaudits of their fellow men. It is worth noting that corrupt leaders can still put on a good show of religious devotion. But where was any genuine concern for the honour and glory of God? Jesus saw no evidence that the scribes were in any way concerned about seeking God’s approval.
A Corrupted System
While the religious system that was based upon the Temple came originally from the Lord God with all the instructions about offerings, sacrifices and gifts, over time the way the system was actually being administered had deviated very considerably from the original design.
Indeed so bad had things become that Jesus had felt it necessary on two separate occasions during his ministry to cleanse it from the mismanagement of the Scribes along with the other religious leaders of the day. But reform was impossible and the writing was on the wall for the whole system of Temple-centred religion. Utter destruction would arrive in AD 70 when the Romans legions would desecrate the temple and raze it to the ground.
You’ll remember that Jesus criticised the religious establishment of having turned the House of Prayer into a den of thieves. You’ll maybe also remember that he also had spoken out against the kind of almsgiving that drew attention to itself. In the sermon on the mount Jesus had urged giving whereby the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing but how different things were in the Temple precincts!
The Temple treasury was located in the Court of the Women and there in the courtyard there were 13 large funnel like constructions where worshippers could very publicly and noisily present their gifts. To give there one would be very visible and the noise made when coins were cast into them would quickly alert bystanders to what was going on.
And as Jesus sat there he looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the offertory boxes – maybe his attention was drawn by the chink of the coins.
Everything was done in such a way as to produce the maximum amount of kudos for the giver – how impressed the onlookers would be as they saw and heard the gifts of the rich tumbling into the receptacles!
How easily men and women imagine that they can somehow buy their way back to God! Oh we may not be quite so course as to imagine we can buy our salvation with money but the same mindset is present when we imagine that we can secure our own salvation by what we do. And so many rely upon the good things that they do imaging that these will "buy" them some favour with God.
Such thoughts have so often influenced the church. In the time of Martin Luther the RC needed to raise money in order to finance the building of St Peter’s in Rome and other places too. One solution that worked well was the selling of indulgences. For the payment of a certain amount of money the buyer was assured that the length of time he would spend in purgatory could be reduced. The buyer was encouraged to pay for the quick release of deceased relatives who, they were told, were even then suffering in purgatory. Luther was horrified. Salvation was the free gift of God’s grace – how dare the church suggest it could be bought for money! The Reformation was underway.
But don’t imagine that such practices ended at the time of the Reformation – they exist in other forms even today. Again the RC links the payment of money to prayers for the dead and mentioning the names of the departed in the Mass – when I lived in France the going rate was 50francs a time. One American site suggests today making a contribution of 10$-100$.
And it is not just the RC which is at it the Health, Wealth and Prosperity movement is at it too with its own warped ideas of "seed faith". The giver is challenged to give generously to the ministry of one particular charlatan or another to allow him to live and travel in luxury and material benefits are promised as such "seed faith" produces its harvest. How many thousands are duped into giving more than they can afford in the vain hope of securing those riches for themselves!
While it may be a very precious truth that God is no man’s debtor. The selfish desire to secure riches for yourself is a very poor motivation for generous giving. The Christian ought to give because he has received so much from God not because he has an insatiable thirst for more.
So as Jesus looked up he saw the rich "playing the game". It was not doing them any spiritual good but neither did it do them any physical harm either – they gave out of their wealth and still had plenty left to live on.
But then Jesus’ gaze fell upon a different person who was "playing the same game". He watched as a poor widow made her way to one of the offering boxes and he watched as she put her money in. She didn’t have much at all. In fact all she had were a couple of small copper coins. The value of those coins was pitiful. The average pay for a worker who worked for 12 hours was a denarius. But the two coins of that poor widow came nowhere near a denarius. At that rate of pay her two coins represented perhaps 5-6 minutes – that’s all.
It was all she had and she put it all into the box.
Now was Jesus impressed by this or was he distressed by it?
It is common to read this little story about the widow as setting a counter example to the scribes and their cronies. The line that is taken then is that even in the midst of such corruption there remain some who are genuinely seeking to honour God and to live their lives relying by faith upon the grace of God.
You’ll probably be expecting me to say something similar and to say that Jesus was impressed by her and that he commended her giving as a wonderful example of generosity and of trust in God. After all that that is how you will probably have heard these verses explained before. But I don’t intend to do that as I cannot detect the slightest hint of any of that in the text. Jesus doesn’t commend her; he doesn’t hold her up as a wonderful example for others like us to follow; all he does is to say that she gave more than all the rest because she put in all she had to live on. Yes, you can assume that is positive on her part but it is only an assumption you are making. Jesus’ words can just as easily be interpreted as something of a lament!
Yes, she put in all she had to live on, but should she have done so?
This lady had real needs of her own that ought to have been taken care of and she should not have left herself utterly destitute in "playing this scribal game". Surely Jesus had taught that principle when he condemned the scribes and Pharisees when they tried to get round their responsibilities of helping their own parents. By the law of corban these foolish wicked men tried to look so spiritual by saying that any gift with which they might have helped their needy parent was instead given as a gift to God. This was wrong said Jesus and so it was wrong for the widow to participate in the corrupt system of giving that had been introduced in the Temple.
Don’t get me wrong, Christians are meant to be generous – we have received so much from God that we have every reason to be generous and there are plenty of passages that do encourage the Christian to give and to do so seriously, thoughtfully and generously. But that is not what this passage is saying.
Do you remember what Jesus had just said concerning devouring widows’ houses – well here we have example of just what that meant. They should be helping such a woman not facilitating and encouraging foolish behaviour. Jesus doesn’t once mention that she acted out of faith towards God – if we want to justify this woman by saying she was expressing a wonderful faith in God then we have to read faith into the passage for it is not there.
No, this particular poor widow is not a heroine to be imitated she is much more a victim of a corrupted system who is to be pitied. We are meant to see in her the sad effects of a corrupt system overseen by corrupt leaders. We are meant to long for the overthrow of such a system and for the establishment of a new and uncontaminated regime. And that is precisely what Jesus goes on to speak about in the very next verses as he addresses the subject of the destruction of Jerusalem.
The religion of God is good but the perverse corruptions of wicked men make religion stink in the nostrils of ordinary people. And yet true religion does not exploit weak, defenceless and vulnerable people as the apostle James would later write:
Jas.1:27 "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."
Well, may we listen well to Jesus’ advice. Let us not be duped by the modern day scribes with their corrupt and corrupting outlook on life. Let us beware of becoming self-serving, of seeking the plaudits of mere mortals while only making a pretence of pleasing our Great God and Saviour. And let us avoid every idea that suggests that we can buy our blessings or that we can blackmail God into being generous towards us. But let us too, in seeing clearly how great and gracious he is, be generous without looking for any other blessing than to know that it is more blessed to give than to receive.