Mark 12: 38 – 40 Warning against the teachers of the law

Mark 12: 38 – 40 Warning against the teachers of the law

As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the market-places, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’

*       *       *

What did Jesus say about the teachers of the law?

  • They like to walk around in flowing robes (the flowing robes showed that they didn’t need to toil with their hands to earn a living)
  • They like to be greeted with respect in the market-places
  • They like to have the most important seats in the synagogues
  • They like to have the places of honour at banquets
  • They devour widows’ houses
  • Their lengthy prayers are just for show  

Imagine that you’re a mother in 1st century Judaea. Your twelve-year-old son has just come home and told you that his teacher has said that he’s an excellent student. In fact, he could become a teacher of the law himself!

How would you feel?

I think I’d feel pretty pleased. My imagination would dash ahead. I would see my little Reuben a grown man, striding confidently through the town, having people greet him respectfully. He would earn a good living from his knowledge of the law. He would be invited to banquets and sit in one of the seats of honour! My friends would be green with envy at Reuben’s success…

And, if we’re honest, I think that’s how most of us would feel.

But Jesus describes two attributes of the teachers of the law that should cause us to stop and think.

  • They devour widows’ houses
  • Their lengthy prayers are just for show  

When Jesus accuses them of ‘devouring widows’ houses’, I imagine he means charging exorbitant fees for dealing with a widow’s inheritance. It would seem that the fees could eat up the entire estate, leaving the widow destitute. This is not merely cheating someone, it is cheating one of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society; a widow. The law of Moses gave specific and frequent encouragement for widows and orphans to be treated generously and with compassion.

Coming to the second point, we may, perhaps, wonder how Jesus can make such a general statement. Surely there must be some teachers of the law who pray sincerely? But actually, maybe not. If you are making your living by doing things that are directly contrary to the spirit of the law, maybe it’s simply not possible to pray sincerely.

In Luke 18; 9 – 14, Jesus tells a parable about sincere prayer. A Pharisee stands up in the temple and ‘thanks God’ that he’s not like other men – and then lists all the good things he’s done. A tax-collector also goes to the temple, but he stands at a distance, keeps his gaze lowered, beats his breast, and implores God to have mercy on him. Jesus tells us that it’s the tax-collector who goes home justified before God. Effective prayer depends 100% on having the right attitude.

And what is the right attitude? It’s coming before God knowing your need for him. It is being prepared – indeed, expecting, hoping, longing – for God to change you and make you more as he wants you to be.

Lengthy prayers done just for show, like those of the teachers of the law, are worse than useless.

Having looked at the two obviously bad attributes of the teachers of the law, what about their other characteristics that Jesus describes? I seem to remember feeling rather pleased that my Reuben could become such a respected person…

And that’s a thing, isn’t it? We all want to be honoured and respected members of our community, don’t we? Is that really wrong?

The answer, I’m afraid, is yes, it is wrong. If some members of our community have special respect, special honour, then there will be some who don’t. We will have tax-collectors as well as Pharisees. We will discriminate between them in a way that God does not, for we like Pharisees who behave nicely, and we don’t like tax-collectors who need to repent.

To live in accordance with Jesus’ teaching, we need to focus on love. Our aspiration should be to live in a community of love, in which we can both give and receive love. We should aspire to listen to God, and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, do his will.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Have mercy on me, a sinner. I’m sorry I’m so disobedient. Please help me to do better.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Published by pennygadd51

I write. I've written many pieces of flash fiction, dozens of short stories and two novels, with a third in progress.

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