(I opted not to post a picture of the Kardashians lest it cause a brother to stumble or me to get sued)
Jesus says of the scribes in and around Jerusalem, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Whether you sided with East Coast or West Coast Christianity on the last blog, the issue Jesus is bringing to bear here in Luke 20 is one that everyone seasoned in church has witnessed, and perhaps to some level, of which we’ve all been guilty.
Let’s break it down for cursory understanding:
- Scribes: in the New Testament they were grouped in with religious leaders and would have done things like study the law, teach the law, perhaps settle some disputes in accordance with their interpretation of the law (Mosaic Law that is). But modern day, it almost sounds like they were religious socialites. The Kardashians of the synagogues and town squares. Let’s look at how they behaved.
- Walk around in long robes: so they dress nicely, maybe even a bit extravagantly. Very often I’ll hear talk that we don’t dress to impress at church but we DO want to wear our very best for God. But it seems with the scribes that their very best on the outside had nothing to do with the inside. And I can’t help but wonder if some of those who put up such a fight with what we wear to church aren’t dressing to impress other people, or something along those lines.
- Love greetings in the marketplaces: they loved to be seen, and they liked to stand out in a crowd. Ever get the feeling that certain people at church wouldn’t be there unless other certain people were there to acknowledge their presence? I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of wanting to be seen, whether it be wearing my best new outfit or talking to someone important–even being seen walking into the sacred “green room” before or after service.
- Best seats in the synagogues: right side, 2nd or 3rd row…I notice preachers look that way and will see me. The scribes took the best seats–whether that means where they’d be seen or where they can see I’m not sure. But I notice certain people tend to sit up front week after week and appear to be visibly upset if their seats are taken.
- Places of honor at feasts: head of the table or at least close to whomever is hosting the feast (religious meals). Maybe this is Sunday night dinner or Wednesday night supper at the fellowship hall. But it doesn’t have to be limited to the church or to meals. Neither does the best seat in the synagogue. The principle spreads more broadly: do you have to be in a place of honor or visibility? Would you be happy and joyful and worshipful in the back corner and if nobody ‘important’ knew you’d made it to church that week?
- Devour widows’ houses: the scribes did all these outward, visible acts, but all the time ignored those most often ignored by society. Widows, orphans, homeless, oppressed, sick, imprisoned…they don’t add to my mystique or my resume, so what good are they? This one probably doesn’t happen today (read with thick sarcasm).
- Make long prayers out of pretense: they loved to be heard. I can’t help but think of the scene from Meet the Parents when Greg Focker prays for the meal. Classic. But long prayers are often a mask for lack of prayer in private. I’ve heard few people pray for a long time where I’ve thought, “This person spends a lot of time in the presence of God in private.” In fact, the most penetrating prayers I’ve ever heard have been short but filled to the brim with meaning. My undergrad New Testament professor Lee Magness is the best example of this I can think of. What I would give to have all of those prayers from class written down.
These scribes (which I’m reading as church socialites) will receive the greater condemnation. The most immediate application of this passage would be in regards to religious scholars, of which many are guilty of the above. But more broadly, church socialites fill pews or cushy seats week after week, lest they not be seen in their new outfit or be thought less of by others. We’ve all been guilty of one or more of these on occasions, but I hope Jesus’ caution makes us all pause and ask the right questions of ourselves, our motives, and our hearts.
God be with us.