38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 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. 44 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.”
Adolf Hitler once complained that Germany was an ostensibly Christian nation as opposed to a nation holding to a different religion. Here is what he said:
It’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?
That is telling. Hitler preferred Japan’s exaltation of sacrificing for your country. He even preferred Islam. There was obviously something about it that he appreciated. But Christianity he deplored. Why? Because of its “meekness and flabbiness.” Christianity, you see, exalts the lowly and the weak. Christianity makes much of the unfortunate and those who lack power and strength. But what Hitler wanted was the uberman, the strong man, the man who knew what power was, and the Ubermensch, the master race.
Of course, Hitler was in so many ways simply repeating the mantras of Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote, “Christianity has taken the part of all the weak, the low, the botched; it has made an ideal out of antagonism to all the self preservative instincts of sound life”
Men who like the currency of power, men who like the language of strength, men who act in the theater of the pompous, these men despise Christianity and the teachings of Jesus. In particular, they despise passages like Mark 12:38-44.
God is not impressed by haughtiness.
Jesus begins by offering yet another condemnation of the scribes. In particular, He strikes out at their haughtiness.
38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
There are actually a number of condemnations here. Specifically, Jesus condemns the scribes’:
- ostentatious showiness
- their need for attention and accolades
- their religious posturing
- their love for honors at gatherings
- their greedy stealing from the poor
- their self-righteous religious actions
William Lane has offered some very helpful background information about the status of scribes. I will quote from him at some length here by way of explanation.
The scribe was distinguished by his linen robe, a long white mantle reached to the feet and provided with a long fringe. White linen clothes were regarded as a mark of distinction, so that men of eminence (priests, Levites, scribes), or those who wished to parade their position, wore white and left bright colors to the common people. By the majority of the people the scribes were venerated with unbounded respect and awe. Their words were considered to possess sovereign authority. When a scribe passed by on the street or in the bazaar people rose respectfully. Only tradesmen at their work were exempted from this display of deference. The scribe was greeted with titles of deepest respect: “Rabbi,” “Father,” “Master,” and there is evidence that in the first century A.D. the designation “Rabbi” was undergoing a transition from its former status as a general title of honor to one reserved exclusively for ordained scribes. When the important men of Jerusalem gave a feast they considered it an ornament to the feast to have a distinguished scribe and his pupils there. The highest places were assigned to them, and the scribe was given precedence in honor over the aged, and even over parents. In the synagogues as well the seat of honor was reserved for him; he sat at the front with his back to the chest containing the Torah in full view of the congregation. Jesus condemned the scribes for their desire for these tokens of status and for the self-satisfaction they perpetuated.
Furthermore, “the priestly stole was designed to impress,” writes Joel Marcus, “Josephus, for example, says that the beauty of a priest’s robe ‘is displayed to the beholders’ advantage.”
These men were haughty. These men were arrogant. They loved the admiration and esteem of the people. But no matter how many people were impressed, God was not! God is not impressed by the haughty. He despises the proud.
In Psalm 94:2, the psalmist called for judgment against the proud when he wrote, “Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve!” Proverbs 15:25 specifically speaks of God’s preference of widows over the proud.
“For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty,” said Isaiah in Isaiah 2:12, “against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low.” And James in James 4:6 says, “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
Beware the praises of people, for if you love praise then you will begin to act in order to be praised. Beware the seat of honor. Beware the front of the line. Beware titles and accolades.
We have our own ways of doing this in the Christian Church. We have our own ways of encouraging haughtiness and of elevating some above others. It is a sad and unfortunate thing. This kind of haughtiness was openly mocked by Soren Kierkegaard in the Danish press of yesteryear. Kierkegaard mockingly wrote the following:
In the magnificent cathedral the Honorable and Right Reverend Geheime-General-Ober-Hof-Pradikant, the elect favorite of the fashionable world, appears before an elect company and preaches with emotion upon the text he himself elected: “God hath elected the base things of the world, and the things that are despised”—and nobody laughs.
This kind of showy arrogance is ugly in the sight of God. The proud are courting judgment, according to scripture. According to Jesus, “they will receive the greater condemnation.”
On the other hand, many conscientious Christians fear the temptation to haughtiness and take steps to avoid it. For instance, the records of the First Baptist Church of Bostong from 1788 record the following.
June 18, 1788…In this year “Deacon Gridley requested permission of ye ch[urc]h to sit in his own pew, instead of ye Deacons seat.” He said that “ye seat under ye pulpit was inconvenient for seeing ye minister.” The pulpit was high up on the wall, and underneath and in front was the pew for the deacons, who faced the congregation and were invested with much awe and officialism. Deacon Gridley evidently felt that it would be better to be one among his brethren, to sit with his own family, and to see the minister, than to enjoy all the pomp of a deaconship in the deacons’ pew. The church never went back to the custom of having its deacons sit under the pulpit.
Furthermore, Eric Metaxas has written of how the young German student, Eberhard Bethge, was shocked by the humility of his teacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he first met him.
Bonhoeffer asked Bethge about his family and upbringing, the expulsion by Müller, and his experiences in the church struggle. Bethge was taken aback that the head of this new seminary would ask such personal questions and take such a sincere interest in him. The ordinands were used to a great gap between them and their teachers, and when Bonhoeffer, a few days later, asked them not to call him Herr Direktor, but Bruder (Brother) Bonhoeffer, they were amazed.
Church, let us not think more highly of ourselves than we should. We are all of us sinners saved by grace. We none of us deserve honor but Jesus deserves all honor!
God is not repulsed by lowliness.
God is not impressed by haughtiness. God is also not repulsed by lowliness. Rather, God loves the lowly! Consider what Jesus says next:
41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.
Jesus sits in the temple’s Court of the Women and does some people watching. What He sees intrigues Him. It has to do with the giving of offerings. First, He observes wealthy people putting in great sums of money. Then He observes “a poor widow” putting in “two small copper coins.”
Michael Card offers some more helpful background:
The Mishnah speaks of “shofar-chests”—that is, offering boxes with trumpet-shaped openings…To be able to engage with the text we must realize just how miniscule the widow’s coins were. Mark identifies them as lepta, from the Greek word leptos for “thin.” These were the smallest denominations minted, containing 1.55 grams of copper. If you were to place one in the open palm of your hand, you could blow it away like a feather.
Barclay observes that the lepta was “one sixteenth of a penny” and Danny Akin adds that “two of them equaled 1/64 of a Roman denarius, a day’s wage for a typical laborer.” In other words, this is, from a human perspective, a very small offering. Before we consider Jesus’s words about the true nature of her gift, let us make sure we do not miss the element that links this portion of scripture with the one immediately preceding it. When we look at the two passages, we note that the common element is a poor widow. Consider:
40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.
42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.
First, Jesus condemns the scribes for “devour[ing] widows’ houses.” Then, Jesus draws attention to “a poor widow” with “two small copper coins.” Is it possible, then, that the reason why this widow was so pour was because she had been preyed upon by the greedy scribes? And are the scribes among the rich who preceded her in the giving offerings? If so, part of their large offerings was, in part, her money!
Maybe this is so. Maybe it is not. Regardless, she was the type of woman Jesus spoke of in His condemnation of the scribes even if she was not a specific example. Furthermore, putting this story immediately after the condemnation of the scribes’ abuse of widows is very intriguing indeed!
The wealthy give much. The widow gives little. That is, they give much and she gives little as the world sees it. But that is not how Jesus sees it.
43 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. 44 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.”
Ah! Who is really rich and who is really poor? More generally we should ask, who is really mighty and who is really lowly? The mighty of the earth despise the poor of the earth but in the Kingdom of God the reality is flipped: the lowly are mighty and the mighty are lowly, the first are last and the last are first.
God loves the lowly! God loves the widow who gives selflessly and sacrificially and He is not fooled by the wealthy who give more but give stingily. God does not value the show. God values the heart!
Are you lowly? Do you feel like you do not have much to offer? Do you feel like you are at the bottom of the latter! Take heart! God sees you! God loves you! God values you! God sees your offering, whatever it is, and celebrates it in the Kingdom! There are no small offerings and no small lives and no small talents and no small gifts in the Kingdom of God! In Christ, your small offering is huge and the talents you see as insignificant He sees as a cause for rejoicing!
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul wrote this to the Corinthians Christians:
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
God rejects the proud and the haughty and God treasures the lowly and forgotten! God brings judgment against the power mongers and God brings healing to the widows, the orphans, the despised, the rejected, the forgotten, the supposed unimportant! There are no unimportant people in the Kingdom!
The Lord has a way of reminding us of this truth, does He not? The last couple of weeks have been exciting, personally, because the first volume of a series of books I am editing entitled The Collected Writings of James Leo Garrett Jr., 1950-2015 came out. A lot of hard work has gone into these books both by me and by a number of volunteers who have helped. So I will admit that holding the first volume in my hands has given me some degree of satisfaction.
On Friday I took a box of these books to the post office. In the box were envelopes containing a copy of the book as well as a letter of explanation about the project. I was mailing these copies to various theological journals, societies, and individuals who I thought might help us get some publicity for the project. I do not apologize for doing this. It is part of trying to give a book a chance especially when you are working with a smaller publisher who does not have a large publicity arm. Even so, I must admit that it did feel good to carry that box of packaged books into the post office. I will not deny that I felt a bit of pride as I carried them in, even though, again, it is not even my work! I am simply editing another person’s work, James Leo Garrett, Jr.’s work!
As I took this box of books out of my car to walk into the post office, I tried not to look too much at the homeless man with the sign who was sitting by the door. I have no aversion to giving to those in need, but somehow I was uncomfortable with him being there, to be perfectly honest. So I went into the post office, mailed the packages, then walked back out past the homeless man, got in my car, and drove away.
I say “drove away” but, in truth, I did not even get out of the parking lot. Somehow the visuals of the whole thing hit me and I felt profoundly ashamed. Here I was, carrying a box of accomplishment into a post office to look for publicity…carrying this box of accomplishment and publicity right past a homeless man.
I was not only ashamed. I was afraid. We have these little moments in which we realize that our souls are at stake, that our character is about to be either formed for the good or the bad. I made a u-turn in the parking lot, drove back to the post office, parked in the same space, and got out to go and try to help the homeless man.
Beware the promotion of self! Beware haughtiness! Beware of dishonoring the lowly.
Church, hear me: we are all lowly, and none more so than those who forget that fact! We are all homeless out of Christ. We are all beggars, especially those who think they have something to boast about.
Church, Christ came lowly. Christ came for the beggar with the sign. He came too for the hypocrite with the box of his own pride. To the former He offers comfort. To the latter—to me—He offers a challenge: will you reach the end of yourself, lay down your pride, take up a cross, and follow me?
Come to the lowly Christ who is yet the exalted Lord.
Come to the Christ who values the small, the insignificant, the weak…that is, who values us, who values me. For we are small. We are weak. But He, Jesus, has reached to us in our weakness to give us life! He has become weak, to the point of death on a cross, so that we might have life!
Oh praise the name of the Lord of the lowly! Praise Him.
Repent. Believe. Come.
 Quoted in Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. (p. 165). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark. The New International Commentary of the New Testament. Gen. Ed., F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p.439-440.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27A (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2009), p.852.
 Soren Kierkegaard. Attack Upon Christendom. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), p.181.
 Nathan E. Wood, The History of the First Baptist Church of Boston (Paris, AR: Baptist Standard Bearer), p. 158.
 Metaxas, Eric, p. 264.
 Michael Card, Mark. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), p.134. William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. The Daily Study Bible. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1971), p.316. Daniel L. Akin, Mark. Christ-Centered Exposition. (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2014), p.300.