Mar 4, 2007

The Scribes and the Widow

Mark 12:38–44

When a poor widow brought her offering to the temple, she hoped to go unseen because of how little she had to give. But God incarnate was there watching her, delighting in her selfless sacrifice. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the book of Mark.


We continue with our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark this morning. I will be reading from Mark 12:38–44, which brings us to the end of chapter 12. I will ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Then He said to them in His teaching, “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.”

Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”

He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

O Lord, we call upon You to help us discern, understand, and apply to our hearts and lives the things we have just heard from Your Word. We pray that through the help of the Holy Ghost, we may be taught by Jesus. For we ask these things in His name. Amen.

The Desire for Status

Chapter 12 of Mark’s gospel comes to an end when the gospel writer presents a vivid contrast between the scribes and the widow. This portion of Scripture begins with a serious warning, where Jesus said to those around Him, “Beware”—that is, “Watch out, be on the alert, be careful of something.” The caution from the lips of our Lord concerned the scribes, the theologians, the academicians, and the professors of the Bible in that day.

Jesus said, “Watch out for these who have been appointed to the position of teachers,” anticipating what James would teach us later, “Let not many become teachers, for with that office comes a greater judgment.” Anyone who is put in a position of biblical, theological, or ecclesiastical leadership, who has been given the responsibility to feed the sheep of Christ, has an enormous power to mislead and misfeed the sheep to the destruction of the flock of God.

Jesus warned His disciples about the scribes: “They desire to go around in long robes.” Jesus was referring to the custom of the Jews to put on a prayer shawl when reciting their prayers, but the scribes had specially made full-length prayer shawls, like robes that would touch the edge of the ground. They had ornate tassels on the ends, and these robes or shawls depicted the lofty status these professors enjoyed in the community.

Some things never change. In the academic world, there is great jealousy among professors with respect to status, position, titles, and even the garments worn in academic processions. This still goes on even in our day. How much energy is spent by those in this arena to gain higher titles? You start out as an assistant or an instructor, then as an assistant professor, and then a full professor with tenure, and so on.

I have always told my students that you start off in your education with only your name. Then maybe you go through seminary, and now suddenly you are Reverend. Then you maybe go to graduate school and get an advanced degree, and people now call you Doctor. In the academic world, that is not as high as Professor. But you have not really made it in the theological world until you are known simply by your last name. We do not talk about Professor Calvin or Professor Luther or Professor Augustine. We just speak of them by their names. In fact, perhaps the greatest tribute of any theologian in history apart from Jesus and Paul would be Thomas Aquinas because, in the academic world, he is known simply by his first name. His philosophy is called Thomism. When we speak of Thomas, everybody knows what Thomas we are talking about. Is it not crazy how people go to such great extremes to receive the status of a title when the highest status is being known by the name with which you came into the world?

Jesus said: “Watch out for the scribes. They like to go around in long robes. They love greetings in the marketplace.” It was customary among the Jews that if a scribe came by and you were a merchant, it was your duty to rise in the presence of a dignified scholar such as a scribe. The scribes loved the best seats in the synagogues, which were the benches along the sides. The common people sat on the floor, while the scribes had a comfortable place to sit and of course the best places at the feasts. The scribes always sat at the head table during feasts and were honored in that way.

Predatory Pretense

Jesus said, “Watch out for the scribes, because they devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.” What does He mean by they “devour widows’ houses”? The Bible displays a special concern for taking care of widows and orphans because among the Jewish people, they were the most vulnerable, dependent, and easily exploited. The scribes would go to vulnerable widows and bilk them out of whatever savings they had.

When I read this text, I cannot help but think of what happened when I was teaching in Jackson, Mississippi. I was taking dance lessons at a local dance studio. An investigative reporter in Jackson wrote an exposé about the unethical goings on in these dance studios, reporting that the dance instructors would invite elderly widows to come in for dance lessons and then make them pay exorbitant amounts of money for the instruction. The instructors would promise the widows companionship and take them to dance contests in New Orleans a couple times a year, and this became their lives. The paper reported one dance instructor who went to a woman’s house and explained that she needed to take ten or fifteen thousand dollars’ worth more dance lessons. She did not have the money, but he said he would drive her to the bank so she could take a second mortgage on her home to afford the dance lessons, and that is what she did.

Widows are the number one targets of Ponzi schemes in our country because they are often frightened, not secure, and if somebody promises them the benefit of an extravagant return on their investment, they will often fall for it. This is what the clergy were doing in the ancient world. Jesus said, “Watch out for them.”

The scribes disguised their hypocrisy with their long, drawn-out, public prayers, which they made not to honor God but that they might be seen by men. It is as if when they prayed, they peeked to see who was watching so that they could enjoy a reputation for piety. Jesus gave a dreadful evaluation of the scribes. He said, “They will receive their condemnation.”

Alms in the Temple

Beginning in verse 41, the focus of the text shifts from the scribes to the contrast between those who serve God with hypocrisy and those who serve Him with true spiritual devotion. Mark’s attention comes to Jesus as He sat opposite the treasury of the temple, which was found in the court of the women because both men and women could enter that court. In that court were thirteen receptacles for donations or alms, for there were many needs the donations were used for in the temple.

In Exodus, God commanded His people to bring their offerings because God wanted His sanctuary to be built. God said to the people of Israel, “Bring now your gold, your silver, and your bronze.” Then He said, “Bring unto My house your precious threads, your colored threads, and your woolens, and your linens.” Those things were used to make garments for the priests, woven of the finest materials and adorned with the greatest beauty, because they were to serve God in the beauty of holiness.

Moses commanded that the people should bring in grain, wine, oil, incense, and precious fragrances. Why? The people of Israel would use all these things in their worship. Oil was needed for the lampstand and the candles. Wine was used in the sacrifices. Those were all used under the original establishment of the tabernacle in the Old Testament.

Fast forward now to the Herodian temple that has a court with thirteen receptacles for donations. It still was required of the people of Israel to bring in gold, silver, bronze, wine, and precious garments because these things were still to be used in the sacrifices in the temple. So, the temple became almost like the central bank of the nation. There was so much money deposited regularly in the temple treasury that the person who administrated the temple treasury was the second highest figure in the nation, just underneath the high priest.

The Most Famous Gift

Jesus was watching the drama of the people’s giving. He saw how the people put money into the treasury. What we have in this text is a description of the most famous donation ever made by a human being in the history of the world, a fame beyond the fame of a Bill Gates, who has given his hundreds of millions by way of donations, or the Carnegies, or Rockefellers, or any others who have made names for themselves by their great generosity.

The most famous gift—the gift that has been known by more people than any other gift in all of history—is the gift this woman brought to the temple treasury. The amazing thing is that in stark contrast to the scribes, who could not wait for people to see their piety and spirituality, the last thing the poor woman wanted was for anybody to even notice her.

The woman was probably ashamed of the meager donation she was giving. She was offering a mere pittance. She brought two mites, which together make up one-thirty-second of a denarius, and a denarius was the pay for one day’s work of a laborer. So, the woman’s offering was one-thirty-second of one day’s work. Two cents would not catch it. It was less than two cents, but this is where we get the phrase “putting your two cents’ worth in.” The widow came with her meager donation. Why? Because that’s all she had.

Jesus watched as the wealthy people came and gave out of their substance. They gave to God what they could spare. The woman had nothing to spare, but what she had, she gave. This is a story of sacrificial giving because it was for the purpose of offering a sacrifice to God. For most people who came into the treasury, there was no sacrifice involved at all. It cost them hardly anything in terms of their substance.

The text says: “Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury.’” The disciples probably thought: “That sounds crazy. She’s given more? Can’t you add, Jesus? Do the math, please. She didn’t even give two cents. How can that be more than all the rest of the money being poured into the treasury by people who don’t miss it?”

A Living Sacrifice

Jesus was telling us something about God’s balance sheet. Stop for a minute and use your imagination. When we started our study of Mark, I asked you to use your imagination to pretend you were back in the catacombs of Rome at the time this book was written. Let us put ourselves for a moment into the skin of the poor widow.

I am sure that the widow approached the treasury and the offering place tentatively, almost furtively. She did not want anybody to see how small her donation was. She was hoping nobody was looking when she gave her gift. But the One watching her was God incarnate. God Himself in the flesh was in the treasury of the temple that day, watching who was giving what.

When Jesus saw the woman make her sacrifice, He called His disciples, and He said: “Look at that. That’s devotion. That’s what it means to be a disciple. That’s what it means to love My kingdom. She did not give out of her substance; she gave out of her poverty.”

The widow gave herself as a living sacrifice, which is what Paul would later say is the appropriate response for every Christian who has received the pearl of great price. There is no gift big enough that we could ever outgive what we have received. Out of her poverty, she put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.

This was not long before Jesus would deposit into the treasury of His Father the richest contribution He could make. He held nothing back. He gave His life. Nobody took it from Him. He gave it. He laid down His life for His sheep.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.