Wed, November 3, 202110 mins readFather Hans Buob

Polemics Against the Scribes

Biblical Homilies on the Sunday Gospels in Reading Year B

Bible passages


Mark 12:37b-44

Biblical Homilies


Polemics Against the Scribes

In the course of his teaching Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” 

The text at hand is again a well-known Gospel. What does the Lord want to tell us with it today? Jesus is speaking to a large crowd in his teaching. This passage is not so much about the vanity of the scribes as it is about their teaching. The scribes want to have a privileged position and function in the community of believers because of their teaching. Jesus, however, always speaks of serving. The scribes therefore behave completely opposite to the demands Jesus makes on his disciples in the kingdom of God. Jesus describes quite simply how they want to be greeted in the seats on the basis of their being teachers and their teaching, to have the front seats in the synagogues and the seats of honor at banquets, and so on.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” (cf. Verses 38-40)

What is meant there? This probably means that the scribes as pious men - this is not meant to sound ironic, I really mean: as pious men - have the trust of the people. Widows, for example, ask them to defend them in legal disputes. So people also entrust them with their legal affairs. That would be all right in principle. Jesus denounces, however, that the scribes let themselves be highly paid for their services and even deprive the widows of their houses. He probably also thought of custody. The scribes were probably also entrusted with such things. They should expect a much harsher judgment than other people because they should actually know about the necessity of the continuity between teaching and action. After all, they teach the word of God. The behavior of the scribes, however, is not always in accordance with the Word of God. The fact that they defend the poor, widows, and orphans in legal disputes or take over their custody is certainly in accordance with the word of God, but the fact that they allow themselves to be paid so highly for their services that even widows lose their homes in the process has nothing to do with the word of God. They will be judged for their doctrine not being consistent with their actions.

We, too, must ask ourselves again and again: Is my faith, my teaching - whether I teach publicly as a teacher, as a preacher, or simply through my life as a Catholic - consistent with what I do? Am I acting in accordance with that teaching? Think of last Sunday's Gospel, the greatest commandment of love. Does my life, with all my faults, conform as best I can to this greatest commandment?  Does my life as a Christian, my assertion that “I am Catholic” agree with this teaching? Is my teaching consistent with my actions? This is the background. That is why Jesus is now talking about the teaching of the scribes. They may be teaching the right thing, but they are not doing it. They even misuse the teaching to exploit people and deprive widows of their homes.

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. (cf. Verse 41)

This passage sounds as if it does not belong to the previous one. And yet both passages belong together. In Greek, this is expressed with the word “and” before verse 41 and between the two sentences of verse 41, which is not in the usual translation. This “and” shows the connection with what Jesus has just said before the scribes. It is expressly said: “He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.” And, “Many rich people put in large sums.” They must have given their gifts openly, otherwise one could not have seen that they gave large donations. After all, they want to express something with it.

A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” (cf. Verses 42-44)

The widow threw two lepta into the offering box, that is, very little. Lepta were among the smallest copper coins of the time. Jesus uses this situation to teach his disciples a lesson. Previously, Jesus had spoken to the large crowd. The disciples were surely scattered among the people. Now Jesus calls only his disciples to him, the twelve. He wants to teach them an important lesson because they must have also observed the situation with the widow. With this example, he explains to them what really matters. The rich gave from their abundance while the widow gave from her lack. She gave everything she needed to live, her entire livelihood. This is clear from the Greek word “bios.” This includes everything needed for earthly life, that is, food, housing, clothing, etc., especially food. The widow has risked practically everything. She has given everything to God. She now trusts only in God. She has nothing left. Not even on the little she still possessed did she base her life - only on God. Jesus brings these thoughts again and again in other variations, in other examples, here again: to lean on nothing but to trust God, to live in Providence. “Do not worry about your life ...” (cf. Mt 6, 25-34)

Whoever goes to the temple, whoever wants to glorify God, must also risk everything for God, otherwise, they behave like the rich. They give some of their abundances and leave. They do not need God at all. They still possess so much that they can live well with it even without God. When I go to God, glorify Him, and worship Him, I am expressing: “God, you are everything to me, I am nothing!” Then I must also give myself completely to God, surrender myself completely to him, as the widow did so wonderfully. This is the right attitude before God. Adoration is the deepest form of glorifying God. Adoration means: “God, you are everything, I am nothing. I give you everything, risk everything on you, and trust only in you and not in my possessions.” I may possess something, but the crucial question is: on whom do I rely on? This is beautifully expressed in the image of the widow. The rich also go to glorify God. However, what is the glorification of God as long as one is secured? As long as I am secured, I do not need God. I glorify Him incidentally. But such glorification of God does not cost me my existence. Whenever someone gives out of abundance, their existence is not affected. What is at stake here is our relationship with God, the basic attitude in which we go to God. The scribes teach everything God says, but they do not act on it. Their behaviour is not credible and does not glorify God. They give of their abundance, but they do not cast their whole existence on God. They do not trust God completely - but the poor widow does. Such trust is the prerequisite for the true worship of God.

This Gospel is a response to the behaviour of the scribes and their dishonest attitude. They do not simply want to help the poor, but to win. But the desire for profit is contrary to the demands of the word of God. Jesus is concerned with the inner attitude, not with the outer action. This text is a rather short Gospel with a very striking message that calls us to a decision. We must ask ourselves again and again: “Does my Christianity, my word, my proclamation correspond to my actions? Do I go to God in the awareness that I am completely dependent on him? - Or do I go to him with all kinds of worries in my head that I want to pay for myself? Do I come to God in trust: I do my own as best I can, but I cast my cares on you, O Lord!” - i.e. do I cast myself with my whole existence on God? He alone is the sustainable foundation of my life, regardless of whether I possess anything or not. We cannot cheat our way past any word of God. We have to listen carefully to what the Lord wants to say to us today because we have to give an account of it just like the scribes. ∎