In every generation and in every culture there are those who take a position of authority and use it to personal advantage. They can be religious leaders. They can be political leaders. In Jesus’ day the religious leaders and political leaders were the same people. There was no separation of “church” and “state.” But regardless of function, these are people who are supposed to be public servants. Except that it doesn’t work out that way. Instead they become masters, and masters who at best are indifferent to the needs of those they are supposed to serve, and at worst actively exploit them. These are the ones Jesus called out.
The NIV says, ““Watch out for the teachers of the law.” I like “beware of the scribes” better, although, “Take a good hard look at the lawyers” might work as a paraphrase too. Jesus directed the attention of his disciples to these “official” religious leaders as an example NOT to follow. So what egregious acts were these scribes up to? When we read it in English it doesn’t sound that bad. For starters Jesus says that: “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.”
This was a highly status conscious society. Everyone watched everyone else, and honor was very important. Jesus’ first criticism was that the scribes walked around in long robes. Long robes were not for the working class. They were impractical. Only the rich leisure class could wear long robes. And long robes weren’t just long; they were festive and richly ornamented. They were the $10,000 custom made Brioni suits of the 1st century. They screamed “look at me, I’m rich.”
Second, these men occupied the best seats. The best seats in the synagogue were the ones up front where they could watch everyone else, and more importantly, where they could be seen by everyone else. The best seats at banquets were the seats of honor nearest to the host. Those closest to the host were accorded more honor and respect. They even got better food than the other guests! And of course, they were seen by others and recognized as superior. But as bad as all of this showing off might be, what makes their behavior really reprehensible is what Jesus said next. Jesus said, “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.”
So how did the scribes “devour” widow’s houses? The scribes were the recognized legal experts of the day. They were lawyers. They gave advice to people on wills and estate management. A married woman had a husband to deal with them, but a widow was on her own, and a widow needed a scribe because she was not permitted to run her own business affairs. Only a man could do what needed to be done legally, so she had to hire somebody. Making the situation even more untenable was the fact that most Jewish women were uneducated or under-educated, so they were easily taken advantage of.
A widow with property would likely seek help from her local rabbi who in turn would recommend several scribes. They would come to her home to interview for the position, and quite possibly offer up long impressive sounding prayers to persuade her of their piety. She would end up hiring one of these vultures, and could then be taken to the cleaners, because the scribe was essentially given full legal reign over the estate. He could filter off money or property to himself. He could recommend risky investments he was involved with. And he could do all of this with full legal immunity. If the widow ended up penniless and on the street, oh well. Too bad for her!
This is truly evil. I would like to say this type of malicious practice no longer exists, but despite there now being laws against such behavior, things like this do still happen every day. Vulnerable people are taken advantage of by the greedy and corrupt. And at the same time the scribes Jesus criticized were raking in the money with these lucrative positions, they were also flaunting their alleged holiness in public. The word used is pretense. It was all fake, and it made Jesus furious and sick. He stated that ultimately these men would be judged severely by God.
After criticizing the scribes for their hypocrisy and crimes against widows, Jesus then went and sat opposite the Temple where the alms were collected in large metal urns shaped like trumpets. He watched as the rich scribes and the well-off in general came by, all making a show of their giving. Coins can make a lot of noise. And as with everything else, some people made a point of making sure everyone noticed how much they gave. There were thirteen trumpet shaped collection chests in all. Two were for the half-shekel tax. That would not be what the widow used. Nine were for offerings “legally” due by worshippers to cover the costs of sacrifices, including sparrows, pigeons, wood, incense, and golden vessels. The others were for voluntary offerings that fed and cared for the poor and another fund inside the Temple paid to educate children of the poor. We don’t know into which offering chest the woman placed her two coins, but if they were for alms for the poor, she herself should have been a recipient.
If we were to divide our offerings up, something we used to do, we’d have categories like “building repair fund,” “staff salary fund,” “pay the PECO bill fund,” “internet and phone fund,” “paper goods fund,” “cleaning the building fund” along with “charitable emergency fund, aka, the Deacons fund,” and “benevolence for large disasters fund.” But in our tradition none of these are mandated. We depend entirely on people doing the right thing because they want to do the right thing. Human nature being what it is, this can leave us short of funds.
The widow was clearly poor. She came up to one of the trumpets and she put two small coins in. I know that our text says they were worth a few cents, but making an equivalence based on the cost of things, it was really about the cost of a cheap lunch. She had enough to go to the 1st century version of McDonalds. But that was all she had. And for some reason she felt that what she had, all she had, should be given to God that day, and she was just going to have to trust God to feed her. Not many people would do that. Jesus took note of her actions, and he pointed her out to his disciples, saying, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Now giving every penny we have is not a principle that Jesus wants us all to go out and immediately emulate. The principle we are given is percentage giving, ideally 10% of our net income. In this case Jesus was making a contrast between her giving and their pride and greed. She trusted God completely to take care of her. They trusted in their own ability to con and manipulate.
Another widow in scripture, the widow of Zaraphath, also found herself in the position of trusting God or having her last meal. She decided to trust God when the prophet Elijah asked her for food. She had only enough for a last meal for herself and her son, after which she expected they would starve to death because of the famine. But she trusted God and she fed the prophet. She was rewarded with flour and oil that did not run out until the famine was over. She could have hoarded her meager resources but instead, she shared them.
We’re not facing starvation like these two women, and yet we find it very difficult to trust God to provide for us. As odd as it might sound, human beings tend to trust God more when they have less. When our back is against the wall and we have nothing, we also have nothing to lose. The most generous people I have ever met were poor. But as soon as we have something we start to exert ownership. We forget that we are stewards of our possessions, and our possessions start to possess us. Instead of trusting God to provide, we worry and fret over the bills. We begin to project. Will I have enough next month, next year, when the kids go to college? Will I have enough to pay the taxes? Will I have enough to pay the rent or the mortgage? Will I have enough for Christmas? What will happen if the furnace goes? Will I have enough to retire? Anxiety that I might not have enough begins to rule my life.
God does not want us to live this way. Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? . . . Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? . . . So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matt. 6: 25-27; 31-34)
“Having” things can become a trap, because it can become more comforting to us than trusting God. And we’re all guilty of this, every last one of us, because we’re human. You don’t have to be greedy to be worried about not having enough money. Stewardship Sunday is a good opportunity for us to re-evaluate how we handle ALL of our finances. As we make our commitment of giving this year I encourage you to prayerfully give the family budget to God, and as you do consider proportional giving. Pray about it. If 10% terrifies you, consider 7%, or 5% or even 3%, but make it a regular spiritual commitment. Everything we have is God’s anyway! It’s just on loan to us, and God is a very good budgeter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a sudden unexpected expense, turned to God and said, “Okay, how are you going to pull it off this time?” and then seen God do it! God may not meet our greeds, but God will always meet our needs.
When we trust, God provides. Lets make a fresh commitment to give it all to God, and let go of our worry and our fear. Amen.
1 Kings 17:8-16
8 Then the word of the Lord came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” 11 As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”
15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.
38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”