By John Fitzsimmons
Key Bible Text: Mark 12:38-44
When I read the Gospel’s I often find them deeply challenging as someone who has been a Christian for a number of years. This is because Jesus’ teaching often exposes motives & attitudes in my heart. As well as being extremely encouraging Scripture at times has a way of unexpectedly & powerfully stripping away masks we wear for others, making us face up to the real us! Jesus at times had hard hitting & even seemingly harsh words to say about & to pretentious religious people. One of the milder examples of Christ’s hard hitting words is found in the text we are looking at today. Jesus warns his own disciples, in the hearing of all the people, to beware of the scribes. That word “beware” means “to see” or “to watch” & it carries with it the idea of guarding against the influence of such people.
V38-44 “And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes , who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the market-places and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
It’s wrong to live in open sin & rebellion against God - the Bible makes that clear! However Jesus teaches here it is even worse to pretend to live for God while really living for self. If there is one thing we need to be as Christian’s it is real & honest about who we are and what we truly live for. To do this we need God’s Word to help us discern the motives & intentions of our own hearts... We rely so much on the Holy Spirit in this area. After encouraging us to take care, Hebrews 3:13 says; “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today”, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Also read 4:12-13). Because of the deceitfulness of sin it is quite possible for us to be convinced we are living for God when we are in fact living for self, just like the scribes Jesus is talking about. That’s why we need God’s help & the help of one another.
We are all capable of being deceived by sin, but an all-seeing God cannot be deceived. He is the discerner of the thoughts & intentions of our heart. His x-ray vision pierces through any hint of pretence we knowingly or unknowingly hide behind. He sees us exactly as we are! Therefore we need his help, via his Word, to know ourselves.
The scribes had deceived many people about who they truly were, but Jesus saw them exactly as they were. At this time no one was more respected than a scribe. They represented the standard of religion; they were viewed as the most spiritual men in Israel. Many were fooled by their outward piety, but Jesus looked directly into their hearts & saw at least three things that made these scribes pretentious, three things we also need to beware of in our own hearts... The word pretentious simply means “trying to appear more important or better than you actually are so as to impress other people - pretending to be something we are not.”
Firstly, these scribes were pretentious because they were ambitious men. Whenever they were out in the marketplaces they loved to be greeted with formal titles. They craved honour & recognition. They expected the best seats at feasts, events & in church. They desired to climb the social ladder. They liked people to know who they were. Here’s a thought that really challenged me lately: God can do more with a heart full of love than he can with a head full of ambition. Challenging isn’t it?
I don’t believe the Bible teaches all ambition is evil. There is such a thing as godly ambition which desires to see Jesus exalted & others rescued & discipled by his grace! Such ambition is motivated by love for God & people. However selfish ambition is evil. Ambition centred on self-promotion, success & gain is evil because it causes us to use others, and even God, for our own ends. Ambition is misdirected when it is focused on something other than Christ and his kingdom! Ask yourself this question: Who & what are my ambitions centred on?
Secondly, these scribes were pretentious because they were proud men. So often pretence & selfish ambition is fuelled by a prideful heart... The scribes wanted to appear in a certain light because they were proud. They liked the conversation to be about them. They liked to show off & exaggerate how spiritual, knowledgeable & successful they were. They loved to have the opportunity to brag about themselves. They loved to pray long prayers to impress others... They were full of self-importance...
Thirdly, these scribes were pretentious because they were greedy men. Not only were they filled with selfish ambition & pride, they also took financial advantage of the most vulnerable people in their society – widows. Widows at the time had no regular financial income. Therefore they depended on what they already owned, or on the charity of friends & family. They had no one to protect them. The Bible teaches us to “plead the widows cause” (Isa. 1:17) and to “visit widows in their affliction” (James 1:27.) But instead of doing the godly thing by looking out for such people, these evil scribes were ripping them off... They used their spiritual influence for financial gain & then they had the nerve to wear a false face of spirituality by praying long prayers in public.
We may not prey on the vulnerable like the scribes, but it is a real temptation to use others for our own gain. To only take an interest in people when there is something in it for us. But if we are seeking to follow Jesus then we have to love people for their own sakes, not for what they can give or do for us. God sees what truly drives us, do we? He sees selfish ambition, pride or greed or whatever it may be in our life. Let’s ask God to search our heart like King David in Psalm 139:23-24; “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting”. The way to a better quality of life starts with allowing God to search & try your heart... but the way of pretence leads to greater condemnation according to Jesus.
Here’s something else to think about. Since the scribes wore a costume of pretence by pretending to be something they were not, people who respected & looked up to them naturally would try to live up to what the scribe’s pretended to be. Then when those people realised they couldn’t, they too would begin a life of pretence so they could keep up the appearance of spirituality even though in reality their hearts were far from it... This is rampant in religion – keeping up appearances – the hypocrisy of pretending to be something we are not in order to impress others... This does no good for us or fellow strugglers. There is much more freedom for us & others in being honest about our sin & simply believing the gospel.
For this keeping up of appearances is not only hypocrisy it is also bondage! As soon as we pretend to be what we are not, it’s like stepping onto a hamster wheel. Before we know it we find ourselves living our whole lives trying to keep up with an appearance, & we lose the freedom the gospel gives us to be honest & real about our lives... Because of sin we can be tempted to make ourselves out to be more spiritual than we are. Then we convince ourselves we are more spiritual than we are. Then we have to keep up to being more spiritual than we are. At this point we find we are trapped in the wheel of pretence, running hard to impress others but in reality getting nowhere in our relationship with God.
Thankfully Jesus goes on & teaches his disciples how to be free from pretence! The gospel lifts us out of the wheel of pretence. The scribes made widows their prey; Jesus made a widow his example of true spirituality!
V41-44 “And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The setting of this is The Court of the Women within the temple grounds. Its name does not indicate it was restricted to women, but that they were not permitted to enter further into the temple courts. Within The Court of the Women there were 13 offering boxes with funnels for all the people to place their financial offerings. There were no notes at this time so all the offerings would be in coins. Therefore the bigger the offering the louder the noise it made when it was cast into the offering box.
The text says Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. Many would have sat & watched with amazement as the rich poured their offerings into the treasury, but Jesus was amazed by something else! “He saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.” In the midst of all the busyness & all the crashing of large amounts of coins into the offering boxes, the poor widows offering would have went unnoticed & unheard by all the people. But astonishingly Jesus says; “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of those contributing...” Imagine the disciple’s faces... “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The widows offering may not have been heard in the temple courts, but it was heard in heaven over & above all the other offerings put together! The noise of all those large offerings ceased as soon as they landed in the offering box, but the two small copper coins this poor widow cast into the offering box have echoed throughout history & are still heard today every time her story is read or preached!
The rich gave God a little of their prosperity, but this poor widow gave God all of her poverty! And Jesus taught his disciples her poverty was worth more to him than all the prosperity of rich! How different God’s value system is from the worlds! How different his assessment of. Isn’t this good to know in a time when many have less to give! God is not counting how much you give he is looking at the attitude of your heart! This also teaches us God can use whatever offering he wants for his purposes. He can use a large offering for a small purpose, or he can decide to use the smallest of offerings for the greatest of purposes... This is both humbling & exalting.
2 Chr. 16:9 NASB “The eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support... (not those who give the biggest offering, but) those whose heart is completely His!” This poor widow’s heart was fully committed to God therefore she gave him all of the little she had, & the eyes of Jesus rested on her & she became the lesson of true spirituality! This unassuming woman had no idea Jesus would take her two copper coins to teach his disciples about real & true devotion. She had no idea her story would find its way into the Bible! Think of how many lives have been enriched because this poor widow gave all of her poverty to God! Are not God’s ways far higher than our ways?! Give him all of the little you have & he will make it count in more ways than you realise!
This story gives us a great foundation for our giving, but it also gives a great foundation for all our living! I don’t believe this passage is only about financial giving. I believe there is an extra dimension provided by the context of Jesus’ words about the scribes. I think he is contrasting the heart attitude of the scribes with that of the poor widow. The scribes tried to cover their spiritual poverty with a life of pretence, but there was no pretence with this poor widow! She simply gave all of her poverty to God and then trusted in him to meet all her needs... This is the way to salvation... This is what his disciples need to see. The gospel calls us to be real about our spiritual poverty before God, to surrender all of our poverty to him, and to trust totally in the provision he made for us in Christ!
You see the scribes gave the appearance of giving everything to God, but this poor widow really did give everything to God! The kingdom of God does not belong to pretenders, it belongs to those are real about their sin & are willing to give all of their spiritual poverty to God & trust in the provision he has made! “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there’s is the kingdom of heaven.” There was no pretence in this woman as she threw her two copper coins into the treasury. Throw your poverty into God’s treasury today. Throw the little spirituality or faith you have into his treasury & you will know the riches of his abundant grace!
The scribes were impressive in the eyes of the people but unimpressive in the eyes of Jesus. The poor widow, on the other hand, was unimpressive in the eyes of the people but impressive in the eyes of Jesus! Don’t pretend to be something you are not to impress people, don’t act more spiritual than you are, just give all of the little you have to God and he will see it & use your life for his glory & as a witness to others...
This woman would never have thought her action of giving all of her poverty to God would be held up as an example of true spirituality for billions of people over 2000 plus years. God can do amazing things when we give him our poverty! In reality our spiritual poverty is the only thing we have to offer. The gospel frees us from the fear of being real & honest about our spiritual poverty, it frees us from living a life of pretence, it’s frees us to be real & honest!
Isn’t it great to know we don’t have to pretend, that we can simply surrender all our poverty to him... doesn’t that take away the pressure of keeping up appearances... There is no need to pretend anymore when you truly understand the gospel! The scribes tried to hide their spiritual poverty with pretence, but the poor widow simply gave her poverty to God! Which example are we following; the bad example of the pretentious scribes or the good example of the unassuming widow?