Summary: Jesus' disapproval of the scribes and approval of the poor widow in Luke 20:45-21:4 warns us about the despotic authority of religious leadership.
Jesus was in the final week of his life.
After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus returned to the temple on Monday and drove out the merchants who were selling their wares and obscuring the people’s access to God. This enraged the religious rulers, who then engaged in several controversies with Jesus. Afterwards Jesus warned his disciples about the scribes, in the hearing of all the people. Then Jesus contrasted the actions of the scribes with those of a poor widow.
Let’s read about this incident in Luke 20:45-21:4:
45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
21 Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, 2 and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. 4 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 20:45-21:4)
In his commentary on The Gospel of Luke Kent Hughes notes that the Westminster Larger Catechism, one of the doctrinal standards of our denomination, states a principle rarely expressed in our day, namely, that the same sin may be more terrible when committed by one person than another.
Question 150: Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
Answer: All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations are more heinous in the sight of God than others.
Question 151: What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
The Catechism gives a four-part answer that Hughes summarizes as follows:
1. Some sins are more heinous than others due to the advantages of the offenders – “if they be of riper age, greater experience of grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others” – their sins are more terrible.
2. Some sins are more heinous than others due to the parties they directly offend. Blasphemy of God is heinous, but also sins “against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many” are particularly heinous.
3. Some sins are more heinous than others due to the nature and quality of the sin – that is, if the sin is committed while fully knowing God’s graces and requirements, and yet doing it anyway while admitting no reparation or fault.
4. Some sins are more heinous than others due to the “circumstances of time and place. . . if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.”