By Dr. Mark Scott
Generous gifts and humble deeds sharply contrast with shrunken hearts and hypocritical actions. Today’s lesson shows that contrast in neon lights. The antagonists in the Gospels (the Pharisees, who were actually greatly respected) contrast sharply with a humble widow who made a most generous gift at the temple. Having just come through the main gift-giving season ourselves, these contrasting texts will cause us to check our motives.
Pride Motivates Ugly Faith
Matthew 23:2-12; Mark 12:38-40
A church sign read: “Spiritual sicknesses can’t be cured by religious quacks.” As Jesus warmed up to give his final discourse in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 24, 25), he took the religion police and exposed their quackery. Scholars debate whether Matthew expanded Mark’s account or Mark condensed Matthew’s account. It does not matter. Before Jesus addressed the scribes and Pharisees directly (Matthew 23:13-36), he spoke to the crowds and his disciples (v. 1) about them, and he said three things:
1. Jesus said that with ugly faith, profession does not match practice. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. While this is possibly a literal chair in the synagogues, it is also a metaphor for interpreting the law. Unfortunately the religious leaders had devised an intricate system of protecting God’s law from being broken (“fencing” the law). Their motives might have been noble, but the interpretation of Scripture ended up being viewed as equal to Scripture. When Jesus said, “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you,” he must have said it tongue-in-cheek. He did not like many of their teachings (Matthew 15:4-9). There is a word for when profession and practice are separated—hypocrisy (a theater term meaning “play actors”).
2. Jesus said that with ugly faith, freedom is replaced with burden. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders. The purest religion is one that liberates people to be everything God intended. The religious leaders caused the commandments to become burdensome and anything but light and well-fitted (in contrast to 1 John 5:3; Matthew 11:28-30). There is a word for when burden wins over freedom—hypocrisy.
3. Jesus said that with ugly faith, theatrics substitute for genuine service. Everything they do is done for people to see. The phrase for people to see is from a Greek word that is transliterated “theatrics.” Pride motivates everything in this longer section of our text. Wide phylacteries (leather, cube-shaped boxes containing Scripture), tassels on garments, places of honor at banquets, the best seats in the synagogues, respectful titles in the marketplaces (Rabbi, Great One, Father, and Instructor), taking undue advantage of others (devour widows’ houses), and making lengthy prayers are all indicators of pride. There is a word for when theatrics substitute for genuine service—hypocrisy.
Jesus took the occasion to teach about grace and humility. God is the revered one. He is the Rabbi, Teacher, Instructor, and Messiah. Grace means that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. No human is above another. The key verses in this section are really 11 and 12. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Jesus had a strong warning and a disturbing promise to these religious quacks: “Watch out,” and “These men will be punished most severely.” But Jesus was not angry. His heart broke for them as Matthew 23:37-39 shows.
Trust Motivates Liberal Giving
In contrast to the religious leaders, was anyone a genuine, humble, gift-giving person? Yes, a simple widow. Jesus spent his public time at the temple during his final week. He sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. This would unnerve most of us.
Many rich people threw in large amounts. This was obvious. There was no paper or plastic to pay with in those days—only coins. When placed in those 13 trumpet-shaped offering receptacles, there was plenty of noise. The richer the gift, the louder the offering. But Jesus focused in on a poor widow who gave two very small copper coins (a fraction of a day’s wage). Jesus sensed it to be a teachable moment, so he gave the disciples a Stewardship 101 lesson. Percentage wise, the widow gave the most. She was generous because she trusted God to take care of her.
Humility is not thinking ill of oneself; it is just not thinking of oneself. The best and most generous gifts are always given by the most humble people.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.