THE WRONG KIND OF RELIGION
The mass of the people listened to him with pleasure. And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the experts in the law, who like to walk about in flowing robes, and who like greetings in the market-places, and the front seats in the synagogue, and the places of highest honour at meals, men who devour widows’ houses, and who, in pretence, pray at great length. These win receive a more abundant condemnation.”
The first sentence of this passage most probably goes with this section and not, as in the Revised Standard Version, with the passage which goes before. The verse divisions of the New Testament were first inserted by Stephanus in the sixteenth century. It was said that he put them in while riding from his house to his printing factory. They are by no means always the most suitable divisions, and this seems to be one requiring change. It is far more likely that the mass of the people listened with pleasure to a denunciation of the scribes than they did to a theological argument. There are certain minds to which invective is always attractive.
In this passage Jesus makes a series of charges against the scribes. They liked to walk about in flowing robes. A long robe which swept the ground was the sign of a notable. It was the kind of robe in which no one could either hurry or work, and was the sign of the leisured man of honour. It may be that the phrase has another meaning. In obedience to Num.15:38 the Jews wore tassels at the edge of their outer robe. These tassels were to remind them that they were the people of God. Quite possibly these legal experts wore outsize tassels for special prominence (compare Matt.23:5). At all events they liked to dress in such a way that it drew attention to themselves and to the honour they enjoyed.
They liked greetings in the market-place. The scribes loved to be greeted with honour and with respect. The very title Rabbi means “My great one.” To be so addressed was agreeable to their vanity.
They liked the front seats in the synagogue. In the synagogue, in front of the ark where the sacred volumes were kept and facing the congregation, there was a bench where the specially distinguished sat. It had the advantage that no one who sat there could possibly be missed, being in full view of the admiring congregation.
They liked the highest places at feasts. At feasts precedence was strictly fixed. The first place was that on the right of the host, the second that on the left of the host, and so on, alternating right and left, round the table. It was easy to tell the honour in which a man was held by the place at which he sat.
They devoured widows’ houses. This is a savage charge. Josephus, who was himself a Pharisee, says of certain times of intrigue in Jewish history, that “the Pharisees valued themselves highly upon their exact skill in the law of their fathers, and made men believe that they (the Pharisees) were highly favoured by God,” and that “they inveigled” certain women into their schemes and plottings. The idea behind this seems to be this. An expert in the law could take no pay for his teaching. He was supposed to have a trade by which he earned his daily bread. But these legal experts had managed to convey to people that there was no higher duty and privilege than to support a rabbi in comfort, that, in fact such support would undoubtedly entitle him or her who gave it to a high place in the heavenly academy. It is a sad fact that women have always been imposed upon by religious charlatans, and it would seem that these scribes and Pharisees imposed on simple people who could ill afford to support them.
The long prayers of the scribes and Pharisees were notorious. It has been said that the prayers were not so much offered to God as offered to men. They were offered in such a place and in such a way that no one could fail to see how pious they were who offered them.
This passage, as stern as Jesus ever spoke, warns against three things.
(i) It warns against the desire for prominence. It is still true that many a man accepts office in the church because he thinks he has earned it, rather than because he desires to render selfless service to the house and the people of God. Men may still regard office in the church as a privilege rather than a responsibility.
(ii) It warns against the desire for deference. Almost everyone likes to be treated with respect. And yet a basic fact of Christianity is that it ought to make a man wish to obliterate self rather than to exalt it. There is a story of a monk in the old days, a very holy man, who was sent to take up office as abbot in a monastery. He looked so humble a person that, when he arrived, he was sent to work in the kitchen as a scullion, because no one recognized him. Without a word of protest and with no attempt to take his position, he went and washed the dishes and did the most menial tasks. It was only when the bishop arrived a considerable time later that the mistake was discovered and the humble monk took up his true position. The man who enters upon office for the respect which will be given to him has begun in the wrong way, and cannot, unless he changes, ever be in any sense the servant of Christ and of his fellow-men.
(iii) It warns against the attempt to make a traffic of religion. It is still possible to use religious connections for self-gain and self-advancement. But this is a warning to all who are in the church for what they can get out of it and not for what they can put into it.
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