Mark 12:38-40 (NIV): As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”
Jesus’ condemnation of the teachers of the law was not about what they taught, but about who they were, how they lived, and what was in their hearts. As Jesus pointed out in the parallel passage in Matthew 21:2-7, these men taught the Bible, which is the truth, so people were obligated to obey the truths that they taught. But, by and large, the lives of these men did not meet the requirements that they laid out for others.
The problem was not that they didn’t know the requirements of the law – they did, without question. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts a far from me.” (Matthew 15:8, quoting Isaiah 29:13) Many of these men had lost their passion for and devotion to God, and had been taken captive by the perks of their position. They enjoyed wearing the long, flowing robes that identified them as experts in the law. They enjoyed it when people recognized them in the marketplaces, greeting them with great respect. They enjoyed being given the best seats in the house for worship services or banquets.
Jesus was warning His followers to not admire these men, or want to be honored and admired like they were. There was a trap in desiring that kind of popularity – a person began to believe that they really were an exceptional person; that they really were especially loved and valued by God; that they really deserved all of the popular acclaim that they were getting. They would cheerfully accept the donation of the last coin from a widow, leaving them nothing to live on, in exchange for a blessing or a prayer that, because of the distance between them and God, had no effect whatever. And the eloquence of their prayers was often so admired that they frequently stretched them out when they prayed in public, adding words and well-turned phrases that impacted God not in the least.
Such men, despite the opinions of those who admired their knowledge and piety, were not worthy of any admiration. They were like whitewashed tombs – beautiful on the outside where people could see, but inside full of all kinds of corruption, hypocrisy, and every kind of wickedness (cf. Matthew 23:27-28). On the Day of Judgment, instead of receiving the honor and accolades that everyone believed were waiting for them, they would end up being condemned and punished severely. The judgment of God is always based on the absolute truth, and is never swayed by public opinion.
Father, because we can only see the outside, and because we are so easily swayed by glitz and glamor and a good PR campaign, we are often persuaded to follow someone who, though they appear good on the outside, are full of rottenness within. And then, when the truth comes out, we find ourselves devastated, and ashamed that we were so easily taken in. Lord, help us to follow You as our guide, our standard, our model. And help us all, as Your people, to be pure and holy on the inside where it counts, so that we demonstrate, not glitz and glamor, but a rock-solid godliness that will never allow us to put ourselves first, and that will never lead others astray. Amen.