Summary: The world teaches us to seek after power and prestige, as the Scribes do, but Christ teaches us a different way to live.
Year after year, Ken and I have marveled at the wonderful, glorious fact that we can take Mary Ellen clothes shopping and she is not concerned about brand names. We’ll take her to pick out some jeans and long-sleeve shirts in the Fall, or shorts and t-shirts in the Spring. We usually need to get her a new pair of tennis shoes before the start of school every year. And always, Mary Ellen gladly follows us to Academy, or Target, or some other discount retailer to find what she needs. And always, Ken and I pat ourselves on the back because Mary Ellen wasn’t bothered by the fact that she didn’t get Nikes or Levis or whatever. Until this year…
With a generous newspaper-clipped coupon in hand, Mary Ellen and I headed to Kohl’s several weeks ago to buy her some jeans and winter shirts. All was going well until Mary Ellen asked, “Can we see if they have any Converse shoes?” (In my mind I heard, “Duhn, duhn duuuuhn….”) My mother had already purchased Mary Ellen a nice new pair of tennis shoes before school started, so she really had no need for another pair, but alas, Mary Ellen was concerned about the brand and the look. So, we finished our jean shopping and headed to the shoe department. Sure enough, there they were, and Mary Ellen had to have a pair. Because they were not a necessity, Mary Ellen and I worked out a deal where she made a contribution toward the cost of the All-Stars, but what really bothered me was the fact that the Sauer off-brand streak had ended. At least it will work with Owen for a while…
I share that story with you to say this; our self-identity is very much driven by what the culture tells us is right, or good, or popular. It’s most obvious in pre-teens and teenagers with their concerns about brands of clothing and handheld devices, but there are adult versions of this epidemic, too. Society tells us that you’re a better person if you live in the right neighborhood, drive the right kind of car, use a certain kind of cell phone, and send your kids to the right private school. So we strive for these things, and if we can’t attain them all, then we always feel at least a little inadequate, maybe a little ashamed. So we keep trying, doing every little thing we can to raise our societal status.
We come this morning to some observational teaching by Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem. We heard this same scripture passage a couple of months ago, and we focused on the sacrificial gift of the widow. But this morning, I want us to consider Christ’s words about the legal experts. Now, the Scribes (as they are also known) were the crème-de-al-crème of ancient Israel’s religious society. This was a culture that was centered around its religion, and the Scribes were the religious experts. They were the authority on the Law, and the arbiters of religious practice. In theory, they were the advocates of the people. They were supposed to be the trusted leaders, worthy representatives, and hardworking civil servants. But in reality, Jesus tells us, it was much different. Because it seems, many of these powerful leaders wanted nothing more than to build on their power and clout.
Now, an early word of caution: we should not soundly condemn all of the ancient legal experts. Modern Biblical scholars have suggested that we have added punctuation where there is none in the original text. “Watch out for the legal experts.” Period. “They like to walk around in long robes.” Period. “They want to be greeted with honor in the markets.” Period. The implication of such phrasing is that what is true of one Scribe is true of all Scribes. In reality, though, the original text probably reads something more like this, “Watch out for the legal experts who like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with honor in the markets.” In other words, this behavior wasn’t true of ALL the legal experts, only some of them.
In any case, the point remains. There is this group of people who is primarily concerned only with appearances. The longer the robe the better; like having the right brand of shoes on the feet. The more prestigious seat at the table the better; like membership in the right country club. The result of all this jostling for position, power, and prestige, though, is that other people are being trampled on, taken advantage of, hurt. “They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers,” Jesus says.
What we need to understand as we look at this teaching from Jesus is that Jesus wasn’t condemning only the legal experts. He was pointing out to his followers the flaws of all people who seek personal gain, power, and prestige above all else; especially when such behavior harms other people. The simple truth of the matter is that we are all like this in some ways and at some times. We do things so that we can get noticed, so that we can bring attention to ourselves, so that we can be praised; whether it’s the clothes we wear, or the car we drive, or the way we flaunt our faith.