Dirty Scribes – November 11, 2012 – Mark 12: 38 – 44

You might have heard this text called the widow’s mite.  The widow has been for centuries hailed as the supreme giver.  She has been honored for giving everything she has to the Temple and trusting God for her provision.  She is often the featured Biblical character in stewardship sermons.  I’m sure you’ve all heard your fair share of sermons about the giving widow.  Today, I’d like to give our attention to the scribes; after all, that is what they want.  And, the text is really about what the scribes have done to the widows.

Jesus calls His disciples to take notice of the scribes in the Temple near where He had been teaching.  Jesus warns the disciples against this group of scribes.  They walked around the market in loooong robes.  They show off to people with their long flowery prayers.  They sought honor in the synagogues and at banquets.  They veil their unfaithfulness in grand acts of faith.  They want to be known as great teachers but they are hypocrites.

Jesus warns that they hypocrites will be judged harshly.  This isn’t a warning against all scribes.  Jesus likely had relationships with scribes that were not conflicted.  This group, and perhaps others, were bad apples.  Jesus’ warning is a warning against the ones who have divorced themselves from God.

Initially, a scribe was a secular profession, an official who was skilled in writing and could decipher legal, political, and financial documents.  The profession morphed into a class itself as they rubbed elbows with power and money among the people they worked for.  Later, scribes became celebrated as teachers of God’s law as they interpreted and recorded the scrolls.  This secular turned religious profession found among its ranks some who were not faithful to God but loved the power and prestige of their position.

Jesus points out three traits of these bad scribes.  First, they wanted to be recognized by the public more than revered by God.  He said they wanted to be greeted with honor in the markets.

Second, the scribes competed for power in the religious institution.  Jesus said they longed for places of honor in the synagogues.  They wanted to sit in the Seat of Moses in the synagogues.  The Seat of Moses was reserved for great teachers as it was the most influential seat in the gathering from where the most authoritative teachings were handed down.  Whoever sat in the Seat of Moses had great power and control.

Third, the scribes were given to materialism.  Jesus said they cheat widows out of their homes.  Whoever claims to know the will of God heeds the call to consider the plight of widows, orphans, and the poor.  The scribes had been described as ‘devouring widows’ houses.’  The Bible doesn’t say what they did to receive this reputation among Jesus and His followers.  However, the scribes were doing something that took advantage of and oppressed the widows rather than fulfilling the Biblical mandate to care for the widows.

Jesus condemns the scribes who were more concerned with giving the appearance of being righteous than actually doing what was righteous.  The group of scribes that Jesus is telling His disciples about are religious hypocrites.  Rodger Nishioka says, “The scribes are like leeches on the faithful, benefiting from a religious system that allows poor widows to sacrifice what little they have.  This system allows leaders to live lives of wealth and comfort at the expense of the poor widow.”[1]

Theologian Charles Campbell has a challenge for the church, like us, that is predominantly white, middle-class, and mainline.  He observes Christian practice among this demographic in his book, The Word before the Powers.  He writes: “Christian preachers have…used the pulpit to send believers off to the Crusades and to support wars of all kinds.  Christian preaching has also supported slavery, racism, and the oppression of women and gays.  And far from resisting the economic violence that comes with capitalism, Christian preaching has been a frequent supporter of the economic status quo.”[2]

I state the obvious all of this was done in the name of Jesus Christ.  The pulpit for too long has been used as the means by which to teach others the will of God according to the prestige and power of the privileged.  Jesus condemns any who support a system that allows the rich to be sustained on the back of the less advantaged.  Still, today, Jesus condemns the church which values having the tallest steeple over feeding the poor.

When the pulpit and Christian preaching has given over to discrimination Church leaders have always found a Biblical basis for their debate.  For instance, slavery was defended because there was slavery in the Bible and countless passages about how to treat a slave.  Women have been denied leadership roles in the Church because of a few verses in Paul’s letters.  There are plenty of people who defend themselves with great conviction.  I’m sure those bad scribes thought they were doing what was right in the sight of God…just like dirty politicians.

The truth is there will always be good arguments on both sides of any issue whether about the economy or social issues.  There is strong conviction on both sides of any argument.  The greatest thing about America is that we have the right to debate and disagree – something many in the world do not enjoy.

Our country has been greatly divided in recent years, like no other time as any can remember.  We agree that we want to remain a sovereign nation where everyone can prosper and have certain rights afforded by the constitution.  We, however, can’t agree how to get there.

In the few days since the election, there has been a lot of fodder about the need for and willingness to compromise in order to remedy the ills of the nation, especially the fiscal cliff.  In a nation that many want to remain powered by the Christian conviction, each party and voter claims in some manner to be on the side of God.  That is the true divide.  It may be easier to name it as Christian conviction on the social issues, but there is religious conviction at the heart of each of our political leanings.

However, we are, for the most part, not like the scribes who wanted to teach Biblical “truths” in a way that support their current comforts.  On the issue of the economy, we are not fighting about how to devour the houses of the widows – we disagree about how to create more good paying jobs.  I believe we each truly want to be a citizen of a nation that lives out the values and principles of God.  We can agree what those are.  We just can’t agree how to get there.

In his acceptance speech Tuesday night, well Wednesday morning, President Obama said, “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated.  We have our own opinions.  Each of us has deeply held beliefs.  And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.  That won’t change after tonight.  And it shouldn’t.  These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.”[3]

We remember on Veterans’ day not that we have the right to disagree; we celebrate the ones who fought to uphold that right.  We give thanks for those who sacrificed for our privilege and freedom to participate in the democratic process and elect leaders, whether our candidates won or not, we voted so that we could be a part of the process of forming a more perfect union.


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