While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Luke 20:45-47; 21:1-4
In all these interactions, Jesus’ disciples were present. And now Jesus takes the opportunity, with the crowd still gathered around him, to address a serious warning to them.
“Beware of the teachers of the law.” Not the Sadducees now but the Scribes, the experts in the interpretation of the Scriptures. These men were easy to spot in a crowd. Indeed they went out of their way to be noticed. They loved all the trappings of their position. They craved recognition. Sitting in the place of honour in the synagogues or at their society parties was sweet to them. Hearing their names called out respectfully enhanced their sense of self. Beware of people like that, warned Christ, especially if they claim spiritual devotion. They may be consummate professionals in their public performance of piety, but they are utterly ruthless in their pursuit of selfish gain and in their exploitation of the weak.
What a contrast to genuine devotion to God! As Jesus looked up he saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury. Then he saw a poor widow. She put in two small coins – all she had to live on for that day. Such devotion! It did not arise out of any desire to be seen – the Scribes certainly wouldn’t be impressed with two tiny coins - but out of genuine worship to God.
There still was true spirituality to be found and the Lord recognised it, however small and insignificant it appeared to others. But it was the exception for there was something very rotten in the state of Israel’s worship of God. Its ‘house of prayer’ had become a ‘robbers’ den’. Men who did not believe in resurrection had found their way into positions of enormous influence, spreading their poison. Religious leaders were increasingly known for their love of status, their spiritual hypocrisy and their exploitation of the poor. Beware of this, Christ warned his disciples. God would not allow this to continue, as Christ would shortly go on to explain.
It’s not just 1stCentury Judaism that experienced such corruption. The scandals that continue to rock the Christian church throughout the world are testimony to the importance and accuracy of Christ’s warning to his disciples and to what happens when the warning is not taken seriously.
Where do we look for genuine spirituality? Who are our spiritual ‘heroes’? Our age seems to be as afflicted with the cult of image and of personality, as was the Greek world of the 1stCentury – if not more so. Prestige, power, money exert the same appeal as they always have. Would we have been able to spot where genuine spiritual devotion was to be found in the Temple that day?
It is perilously easy to get swept up into admiring and pursuing what all around us admire and pursue. Easy to be caught up in our culture’s definition of success. Easy to choose the wrong gods and the wrong heroes. Even in the church. My mother used to repeat to us as children: “The best of men are but men at best.”
We are to honour those like the widow, who pour out their lives in genuine devotion to the Lord. But we are to be wary of empty performers. For we become like what we follow.