Summary: Jesus contrasts the Teachers of the Law with the poor widow. In the former, we see people more interested in themselves than in God; hypocrites, pretending to be something they were not. In the latter, we see a lady who loved God authentically and completely.
Check Your Motive
In March 2009 Bernie Madoff pled guilty to running the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Bernie’s last name is appropriate, because he literally “made off” with billions of dollars belonging to his investors. A Ponzi scheme is pretty simple in concept: you convince a few people to invest their money, and you ensure they get a good return. Then, as word spreads, more people give you money, and you acquire a lot of cash over time. Those ready to get out get paid from the money of more recent investors. And all is well, until the whole thing comes crashing down.
In Madoff’s scheme, thousands of people lost money, including some entire life savings. Prosecutors estimate the size of the fraud to be nearly $65 billion! Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowable, even though he was 71 years old at the time. His incarceration brought an end to a terrible reign of hypocrisy, pretending to be one thing while delivering an entirely different thing altogether.
Jesus too dealt with hypocrisy, in his last public teaching recorded in the gospel of Mark. Throughout chapter 12 he has endured testing at the hands of the scribes or teachers of the law. In today’s passage, he lashes out at them and their hypocritical ways. The word “hypocrite” in the Greek means “two-faced,” alluding to early Greek actors who would hold up various facemasks and pretend to be one thing while really another.
It would be easy to simply condemn these hypocrites of Jesus’ day, to consider their folly so extreme to be almost laughable if it wasn’t so sad. But what about us? Perhaps each of us should ...
1. Take the hypocrite test:
Let’s check our motives, to ensure we would not be right there alongside the Teachers of the Law. I am indebted to the fine commentary on the gospel of Mark called, “A Ransom for Many,” for several of today’s ideas. So the first question the Teachers of the Law point us to is this:
a. Are you obsessed with your appearance?
Verse 38 describes these fellows, saying, “They like to walk around in flowing robes...” Oh, they liked to look good, and to be seen looking good! We know historically that they favored fine white linen robes, when everyone else had colored ones. There’s nothing wrong with dressing in style, unless all you care about is impressing others. Sometimes it might be helpful to consider: “Do I care more about the opinion of others or of God?”
It might be wanting to be seen in the finest clothes. Or it might be something subtler, like always projecting a happy front, letting people think you are someone you’re not. Sometimes we put on our happy face when we come to church, and we never let anyone see the real us. Consider the next test:
b. Do you care too much about your status?
Listen to the rest of verses 38 and 39: “They like to ... be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.” These people thrived on the attention of others. They not only liked to look good, they liked to be seen. They liked to be noticed, admired. They liked to be called, “Teacher,” “Rabbi,” “Master.” They sat right up front, next to the Torah scrolls. Why? So they could learn? No, so they could be seen by everyone else. They wanted the place of honor at the banquet table. They sought out respect of people, and in so doing, lost the respect of God.
This is a temptation for anyone who is respected by others, certainly those in leadership, either in the church or in the community. Do we serve as a leader to help others? Or do we sometimes let it go to our heads, somehow imagining we are a better person than the average Joe blow? How about the next question?
c. Do you fake it spiritually?
Verse 40 says: “And for a show [they] make lengthy prayers.” There’s nothing wrong with a long prayer ... unless it’s for show. Do you have a special voice and style you use for public prayers, to sound more religious? Do you carry an extra large study Bible so people can't miss it? On the other hand, is church the only time you listen to scripture or say a prayer? Is this the only hour of the week you think about God? Sometimes we can put on a front just like Bernie Madoff, acting all spiritual when really, we are as dry as a hot Texas drought. Don’t fake it spiritually. And then, lastly, ask yourself...
d. Do you have a heart full of greed?