Today’s reading is Mark 12:38-40:
He also said in His teaching, “Beware of the scribes, who want to go around in long robes, and who want greetings in the marketplaces, the front seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and say long prayers just for show. These will receive harsher punishment.”
The Gospels rarely have anything positive to say about the scribes of ancient Jerusalem and this passage is no exception. But who are these ‘scribes’ in this passage specifically? Jesus does not have anything against them simply because they are scribes by profession. (See Mark 12:28-34 for a scribe who was on the verge of understanding the Kingdom of God.) Rather, Jesus is calling out a group of people who act in ways that they know they shouldn’t. Scribes, like the one in Mark 12:28-34, were expected to not only know the letter of the Law but to also understand it.
Now let’s take a moment to consider the actions of these scribes. They wore long robes, desired special attention in both sacred and secular spaces, and expected to be honored at other social events. They lived off of those who could not afford to care for them and delivered long orations so that others would have to listen to them. In common parlance these scribes were ‘people pleasers.’ They desired to fulfill the expectations of people in order to earn their approval. They fit the social expectations for scribes; they were appropriately dressed and said long prayers. In standing out in these respects they expected to garner the praise of others in the public square, the synagogue, and banquets. Their true goal in pleasing people, though, was the praise of men for themselves. They may have aimed to please others, but it was only to satisfy their own lust for praise and worldly recognition.
Having established that the scribes in question in this passage should know the letter and understand the spirit of the Law and yet chose to live in a self-serving fashion, Jesus ends this passage by saying that the scribes’ punishment will be more severe. More severe than whose? More severe than those who act similarly to the scribes but do not also profess to be keepers of the Law, thus exempting themselves of the title “hypocrite” earned by the scribes.
Where does that leave us as Christians? Let us look back to Mark 12:28-34 again. Jesus identifies the two greatest commandments: first, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and all your strength” and second, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As Christians we profess ourselves to be imitators of Christ, adhering to these two commandments rooted in selflessness. Therefore, when we intentionally act selfishly we associate ourselves with the scribes against whom Christ was teaching 2000 years ago. Let us not forget Christ’s warning to the hypocrites in the Church (which includes ALL of us at one time or another). “Beware…These will receive harsher punishment.”
Please grant us the wisdom and clarity of heart to test the motives behind our own actions, plans, and desires. Those twisted, impure, and ultimately selfish desires we sacrifice to you, for you to replace with a longing to further your kingdom through the service of others. We thank you that you love us enough to be willing to reveal our own hideous darkness to ourselves and to reshape us into the creatures of Light that you intended us to be.
Richard Rush ’15 lives in Eliot House and concentrates in History.