What did Jesus Christ have against the scribes and Pharisees? There are many passages in the Gospels where Jesus Christ speaks out against the doctrine and the practices of the scribes and Pharisees. One of the harshest passages is in Luke 20:45-47, which reads: “Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”
What does this passage mean for us? It is a short passage, but packed within its short length is a fair amount of insight about why Jesus Christ wanted his believers to be careful for the scribes. Is there an attitude within the portrayal of the scribes here that we ought to be careful of? If so, what kind of warnings are being given here? Before dealing with that, though, let us briefly deal with some issues of context. This passage occurs right before the passage where Jesus Christ praises the generosity of the widow versus the more flamboyant gifts of the wealthy. This passage also occurs in Luke, a book that pays a great deal of attention to the poor, women, and foreigners, in showing how Jesus Christ cared especially for them.
First of all, let us note that this passage begins with a very specific note about how Jesus made these harsh comments about the scribes. Jesus Christ said them to His disciples in the hearing of all the people. The scribes were supposed to be the biblical authorities of the times. They were thought of as particularly knowledgeable about God’s laws and far more holy and righteous than the ordinary person. And yet Jesus Christ considered it important enough to warn others about these people that He spoke up loudly so that the ordinary people would hear His condemnation of the practices of the scribes. Therefore we ought to consider this a particularly important warning as well, given that the scribes probably took it personally.
What is important about the list of things that the scribes love. Jesus Christ said that the scribes loved to go around in long robes, greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best seats at feasts. We ought not to be quick to point fingers at others about these things without pointing fingers at ourselves. For it is indeed true that many of us like these same things. I know I do. Personally speaking, I am immensely fond of wearing long robes, and it is one of the chief joys of graduation ceremonies. It used to be the habit in more traditional universities that long robes (called “gowns” in the language of the time) were worn by students and professors, and I wish that habit were more common because I enjoy the pomp a little myself.
Does this mean that I’m as dangerous as the scribes were? Maybe. The wearing of robes has traditionally been limited to those who are either nobles or scholars or judges. I am a fairly scholarly person, and that is where my love of wearing robes comes from. The scribes considered themselves part of the religious and economic elite (more on that shortly) and were generally well-educated in the law and considered themselves (and were considered by others) to be authorities in the law, whose statements were considered worthy enough to be recorded in the Talmud as supposedly authoritative for Orthodox Jews even today. The problem with this isn’t the robes, but in the arrogance and pride that come with being an elite. I would have to say that intellectual arrogance is a danger I have to be careful for in myself, for many of the same reasons that it was a danger for the scribes. We who think we are knowledgeable in God’s ways ought to remain humble and aware that there is vastly more we do not know or know how to practice in our own lives, so that we do not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to.
The same is true about the other parts of the lists of what the scribes loved. The scribes took pride in the respect they received as teachers of the law, the fact that their position earned them a reasonable amount of money, greetings in the marketplace (which signifies a sense of economic greed) as well as the best seats in the synagogue and at feasts (again, we see here the combination of pride and greed along with a sense of possessing elite status). There is something in the desire to be an elite that Jesus Christ is condemning. That ought to be a warning for us. Pride in our station and position and status can often lead us to look down on our brethren, those whom God considers our equals or even our betters. We ought to be very careful to work as hard as possible to see others as God sees them and not how our corrupt world sees them.
The next part of the warning is even more dire. Jesus claims that the scribes devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. This obviously refers to a kind of economic greed, but what kind specifically is a bit more difficult to discern. There are a variety of possibilities here. It is possible that the scribes encouraged those who were elderly to give more than they were able to support their religious ministries, enjoying a high standard of living while continually harping on how generous others had to be with their finances to support supposedly pious and godly leaders. It is possible as well that these scribes were like those described in Mark 7:11-12 who did not believe it was necessary to support their elderly fathers and mothers because that which they had was supposedly corban–devoted to God. These people lacked the practical faith to fulfill their divine obligations to family.
These same problems are in existence today. We still have the problem of people who ought to be servants of the brethren considering themselves elites who merit a high standard of living from the tithes and offerings of very modest or even poor people, who make a pretense of religious interests when they are more deeply interested in fighting over status and position and ensuring their own economic wealth. Likewise, there is a deep tendency for us to forget our obligations to others in the pursuit of our own self-interest (and I must admit that I am not immune to this tendency myself). When we pretend to be pious and all-righteous when we are not, it becomes difficult to be a fitting example for others to follow of godly conduct, and can even bring the reputation of God into disrepute through our hypocrisy.
There are two ditches that we have to be careful to avoid in this matter. The first ditch is becoming hypocritical in our own spirituality, putting on a front of moral probity while lacking its reality, pretending to be “good Christians” while our lives our full of flagrant and unrepented sin. On the other hand, we may become so embittered by such people that we lose sight in the value of religious forms and may vainly proclaim that we are good in heart even if we are sloppy in appearance and practice.
And that is a significant reason why Jesus Christ made the warning in the first place. The warning served two purposes. First, He was warning us not to become like such people ourselves, to pride ourselves on our knowledge and accomplishments and think that we have already made it and that we are so much superior to others when our religiosity may simply be a cover for our various lusts–whether material or sensual as the case may be. Insecure egomaniacs, the sort of people that are drawn to positions of authority, tend to cultivate leadership among others of their kind, to perpetuate ungodly leadership in the institutions they lead.
However, there was a second point as well. Let us not become so embittered by having placed leaders on pedestals who proved to be corrupt and fallible that we are unable to respect leadership or engage in the very necessary forms of worship. God demands both internal righteousness as well as external forms of godly worship. We cannot choose between being lazy llamas and hypocrites–neither are acceptable. Warning ordinary people to mark such people who seek after power and position and material wealth and who take pride in their knowledge and whose apparent piety is a facade for their materialistic dealings ought to let us know that this warning is important for us. We not only need to avoid such people we need to avoid being burned by them as well.