Sermon 23 Pentecost Yr B

23 Pentecost Yr B, 8/11/2009

Mk 12:38-40

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“Jesus and the scribes”


Bragging may not bring happiness, but did you ever see a person, having caught a large fish, go home through an alley? The story is told about a man who was reading the schedule for his community’s upcoming meetings. He snorted about one program, “He’s going to talk to us about his naval experiences? Poppycock! The nearest he ever came to a naval experience was when his basement flooded and his rowing machine sank.” As that wise person, Anonymous once said: “Pride is the only disease that makes everyone sick but the one who has it.”

In today’s gospel, which takes place inside the Jerusalem temple, Jesus is teaching, and has a captive audience. Right there, in the place of religious power, Jesus lowers the boom so-to-speak on the religious scribes, who may also have functioned as priests in the temple; at least Ezra had that duel role according to Nehemiah 8:9 after the return home to Judah from Babylonian exile. At any rate, Jesus does not hold back on his criticism and judgement of the scribes. He criticizes and judges them on a few counts.

In contemporary, colourful language, Eugene Peterson in The Message puts it like this: “He continued teaching. “Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they’ll pay for it in the end.”

As you can see from this version of our gospel, Jesus comes across as one who is stirring the pot against the religious establishment of his day. Here he does seem to be “a rabble rowser.” The picture Mark gives us is one of a heightening drama; with a growing conflict and collision course between Jesus and the religious establishment. So, let’s unpack a little each of the criticisms and judgements that Jesus makes against the scribes.

In verse 38, Jesus starts off by saying: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes.” As Peterson suggests, these folks could be the professor types or cutting closer to the bone for me, us clergy. Yes, professors and clergy often do like to be seen in our long robes. What’s wrong with that? Is not a robe better than showing off that eight-hundred or thousand dollar suit that the televangelists love to wear? Is not a robe less ostentatious than other distracting or inappropriate clothing? Even in the New Testament, there are positive references to robes—especially for the faithful who have gone to their eternal reward. So what’s wrong with wearing a long robe? Well, here’s why, according to Dr. William Barclay:

A long robe which swept the ground was the sign of a notable. It was the kind of robe in which no one could either hurry or work, and was the sign of the leisured (person) of honour. It may be that the phrase has another meaning. In obedience to Numbers 15:38 the Jews wore tassels at the edge of their outer robe. These tassels were to remind them that they were the people of God. Quite possibly these legal experts wore outsize tassels for special prominence (cf. Matthew 23:5). At all events they liked to dress in such a way that it drew attention to themselves and to the honour they enjoyed.1 In contrast, less ostentatious scribes only wore their long robes during prayer and while they were working at their scribal duties. There is a time and place for all things. If I were to wear my robe every day in public, I’m sure I’d get some weird looks and draw plenty of attention to myself. So, too, on special occasions like university graduation ceremonies; it is appropriate to wear a robe. If you didn’t wear a robe on such an occasion, you would stand out like a sore thumb. So here Jesus is criticizing and judging not all scribes. Rather, he’s referring to the pretentious group of scribes who love to draw attention to themselves by wearing their robes in inappropriate circumstances.

The next criticism and judgement Jesus raises is that the scribes like: “to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.” In other words, they liked to be praised in public—to have an air of pretentiousness, to exude an official, formal image. On the other hand, do we not all desire some respect in the public eye? Don’t we all want a respectable reputation among the general public? Are there not far too many charlatans out there fleecing folks with their shady business deals, their “get rich quick” schemes, and snake oil religion? Recently in news we’ve heard of how a group of Jewish rabbis swindled folks like Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Here in Canada, the Roman Catholic Church was shocked to learn that one of their bishops was caught with child pornography on his laptop computer. So what’s wrong with wanting respect among the general public?

What’s wrong with being greeted with respect in the marketplaces was that at the time of Jesus, it was customary for a superior person to be greeted first by an inferior person—only after such a greeting would the superior person respond. In other words, such scribes who demanded to be greeted first were again acting pretentiously. Scribes of this ilk were saying by this behaviour: “Know your place; I’m better than you. I’m of noble stock, you’re a mere commoner.” In stark contrast to this attitude and behaviour Jesus’ attitude and behaviour epitomised humility. He befriended the ordinary folk of his day. In fact, he went further than anyone at the time by regarding the social and religious outcasts as sons and daughters of God, created in God’s image, like all other people. He came not to be served, but to serve folks—especially the lost, last and least.

In verse 39, Jesus continues his criticism and judgement of the scribes by saying they like: “to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets.” In defence of the best synagogue seats, maybe there is a rationale. For example, would it not be legitimate to have a best seat in the synagogue if a scribe were elderly and couldn’t see or hear very well? Perhaps the best front-row-seats would help them with such impairments in mind. On the other hand, Jesus’ words of indictment here seem to mean the scribes have a self-centred preoccupation with externals—their public image and identity, that’s what really mattered to them. “Hey, look at me, I’m important. See how great I art! I’m the centre of attention.” Again, in stark contrast, Jesus teaches no, such an attitude and behaviour is wrong. What is truly important; what really counts according to Jesus is what is inside more than externals. What is in our heart, that is what counts the most according to Jesus. Jesus’ teaching here is also affirmed by authentic Judaism. You remember the words of Psalm 51, which epitomise this, the psalmist prays: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” And a few verses later: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

In his final indictment of the scribes, Jesus accuses them of abusing their religion, saying: “They devour widows’ houses.” Now this is a pretty serious charge, preying on society’s most vulnerable, the widows. While they rob widows, they have a false veneer of piety and: “for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Does this mean that all prayers should be kept short? I think not, if we are to keep Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” Long prayers in today’s gospel seem to have the intention of duping people—you know, “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” syndrome. The scribes are trying to impress others for the sake of show by the long prayers. Their prayers are not out of genuine love and concern for their neighbour.

Here again Jesus’ own life and ministry is a stark contrast to such proud, self-absorbed scribes. The gospels tell us that Jesus had mercy on the most vulnerable folks like widows. In verses 41 to 44 of our gospel he praises the unnamed widow for giving what little she had to the temple treasury, saying that she had given all she had. On another occasion, Jesus healed the son of a widow, knowing that she would be left destitute if she lost her son. So, in Christ’s eyes, widows were loved and cared for and highly regarded. As for prayers, the gospels tell us that Jesus would get up early in the morning and go to a quiet place away from people, and pray alone there. So prayers were not a show that Jesus put on to impress others. Rather, prayers were from Christ’s heart and soul, poured out in love to his heavenly Father for the sake of you and me and the whole world.

May we continue to learn from Christ’s humility, love for others, and service of others. May we learn from Jesus that life and faith is not lording it over others and placing ourselves on centre stage. Rather, according to Jesus, life and faith is giving of ourselves without asking what’s in it for us or how we can advance ourselves to a higher status. In the words of Jesus elsewhere in the gospels, life and faith consists of denying self, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. Amen.

1 Wm. Barclay, The Gospel Of Mark (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 299-300.