“Beware of the scribes – who like walking around in long robes receiving respect in the marketplaces. And have the important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at the feasts – yet they forcibly appropriate widows’ households and for appearances’ sake offer lengthy prayers. They will receive the greatest consequences.” (Mark 12:38-40)
Jesus is speaking about a matter that was not just a problem during Jesus time. It is also a problem now among those sectarian institutions and their teachers that claim to be representing Jesus today.
Who were the scribes?
Jesus is telling his students to be wary of the scribes of the temple institution. The word "scribes" is being translated from the Greek word γραμματεύς (grammateus). According to Strong's lexicon, the word can mean, "a man learned in the Mosaic law and in the sacred writings, an interpreter, teacher." It can also mean "a religious teacher" according to that lexicon.
In other words, Jesus' uses the word grammateus to describe the leaders and teachers of the temple system. These were the rabbis and priests that taught to the congregations. But also they are the priests and high priests, as well as the scholar members of the temple system.
All of these positions held in the Temple at that time were paid positions. They were each paid a stipend or salary from the temple. They were also often given housing - or paid enough to provide their own housing.
In other words, they were being paid for their services associated with the Temple.
Why was he warning them about the scribes?
Using the word 'beware' (from the Greek word βλέπω (blepō)) is a critical warning by Jesus. Why was he telling his students, beware - to be wary? Typically, someone says 'beware' when a threat is identified.
For example, someone might say, "beware of the wolves that roam at night." They say this because the wolves could attack someone and even kill them.
Remember that Jesus also warned his followers about the Pharisees - which were also technically, scribes:
“Be careful, beware of the yeast of the pharisees – and the yeast of Herod.” (Mark 8:15)So what could the temple scribes and Pharisees do to Jesus' followers that he had to warn them?
Seeking the respect of others
The first part of the warning from Jesus about the scribes comes as he describes them as walking around in long robes and demanding the respectful greetings they received. What's wrong with that?
Remember they were supposed to be spiritual teachers. They were supposedly teaching their followers about God but they seemed more interested in gaining the respect of others. They wanted to look noble. They wanted to be given the most honorable seats when they went to an event. And when they got up in front of people, they gave lengthy prayers to impress others.
In other words, they wanted others to respect them. They were using their positions to gain respect.
While they are supposedly representing the teachings of Moses and the other Prophets, they were more interested in being honored. This not only contradicts the teachings of Moses and the other Prophets. It also contradicts the very basis for spiritual life: That is, honoring God. Loving and devoting oneself to God.
Now devotion to God means honoring God. It doesn't mean using one's position with God to gain the respect of others for ourselves.
That means that seeking the respect of others is diametrically opposed to spiritual life. Spiritual life means giving respect to God and to others, while not seeking respect for oneself. Jesus himself expressed this when someone greeted him as being honorable:
“Why do you call me honorable? No one but God alone deserves honor." (Mark 10:18)
Why is Jesus warning them about this?
The critical issue is not that Jesus wants to criticize them. Jesus doesn't enjoy putting others down. Rather, Jesus doesn't want his followers to become poisoned by these supposed spiritual teachers.
Remember that Jesus is also a teacher, and he has asked his students to also become teachers:
“Follow me and I will make you fishermen of people.” (Mark 1:17)
He instructed them to take nothing for their journey except a staff: No script, no bread, and no money in their belts. Just to wear sandals – and not two robes. Thus he said to them, “If ever you should enter into a house, there you should remain until you leave that place. And wherever they will not receive you nor hear from you – when you leave that place, shake the dust off from under your feet to witness your opposition.” (Mark 6:8-11)In other words, Jesus wanted his followers to become teachers, just as he was a teacher. He specifically asked at least 72 of his disciples to go out and teach according to Luke 10:1.
So Jesus didn't want his followers to become like the scribes, who were seeking respect in exchange for their preaching - their positions of influence with the Temple.
Getting something in exchange
Jesus wanted his followers to teach others what he had taught them. But he didn't want his followers to get something in exchange for teaching. If someone gains a position of influence in order to gain the respect of others, that person has abandoned the very mission of being a spiritual teacher.
By looking to gain respect in exchange for being a spiritual teacher means to deplete the very essence of teaching others. It means vacating the very principle of teaching others.
That principle is love. The reason a person teaches others about spiritual life is to help them. This means caring about them. This means wanting them to be happy.
But once a person tries to utilize that position of influence as a teacher to gain the respect of others, that person immediately loses their spiritual authority. Such a person becomes devoid of the ability to raise the consciousness of others.
That is, in fact, the purpose of teaching others from a spiritual perspective: To help raise their consciousness. But that means the teacher's consciousness must by default already be raised to some degree.
But if the teacher's consciousness is all about gaining the respect of others, that is the consciousness they will be directly or indirectly influencing upon others.
Such an influence will essentially teach others that the means of gaining respect is through pretending to be a spiritual teacher. Such a consciousness bankrupts the entire institution those teachers are representing.
And this was going on in the name of the Temple - and the Prophets. They were using their positions to gain the respect of others. And they were essentially using the names of the Prophets for their own gain. No wonder Jesus was so adamant about this.
Appropriating widows' households
The other element that Jesus criticizes here about the scribes is that they appropriated widows' houses. What does this mean? This means that when a man would die, the Temple would go in and take the widow's house and money. The Temple would basically steal the belongings from the woman who rightfully should have inherited her husband's property.
What we see from this - along with the collection box from the next set of verses - is that the Temple priests were living on the backs of others. They were expecting people to donate considerable amounts, and then they were appropriating the possessions of those who died.
What were they doing with the money? They were paying themselves. They were gaining lavish living quarters, nice robes, and stipends in order to live off their followers.
Notice that Jesus did not do this. Jesus lived without means, and only accepted what was offered to him voluntarily for the moment. He did not command that people paid him for his services of preaching as the Temple priests were doing.
Jesus walked through the countryside as a poor man with no possessions. He did not gain any monetary benefit from his superior knowledge of the Scriptures and his miracles and his pure teachings.
But the temptation was obviously there. That is the meaning of the tempting the allegorical satan ("adversary") did as he showed Jesus the riches he could gain. In other words, Jesus was tempted by the potential of exchanging his wisdom for money and respect.
But Jesus refused this, saying:
“It is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God and serve Him only.” (Luke 4:8)
What about paying salaries to priests?
This is specifically the issue Jesus is raising as he referred to the widows. These priests were becoming wealthy on the backs of their followers. They were making money in exchange for their services of teaching others.
This means they were taking advantage of their preaching. They had turned their preaching into a business. They were preaching in exchange for earning a salary.
This runs against the very notion of serving God. If someone is serving God by preaching to others, then they would not expect anything in return. And to expect something in return means to reject the very principle of love and loving service to God.
This is why in Mark 6:8 that Jesus asked his followers not to carry any money. He also didn't want them collecting money in exchange for their services. He didn't want them involved in business as they were preaching. Why not?
Let's use an example. Let's say that a man buys some flowers and brings it to a woman. The woman will be pleased, yes? But how would the woman feel if she found out someone paid the man to get some flowers and bring it to the woman? Say she finds out that the man is a reporter and he just wants to get some dirt from the woman on someone she knows.
Suddenly, she will not feel that the man was sincere in his giving her the flowers. She finds that he had an ulterior motive. He was being paid to give her the flowers and get close to her, because he was being paid as a reporter. Suddenly, she not only doesn't trust him. She is repulsed by him.
This is the message that Jesus is giving his followers - not to trust the scribes and Pharisees. They were using their positions in order to gain the respect of others and to be paid salaries in exchange for their services. Therefore they had ulterior motives. Jesus - and God - were thus repulsed by the so-called service these priests were providing.
Does this apply to today's churches too?
Yes. Jesus was not only speaking to his followers about the priests of the Temple. He was speaking to his potential followers for all of eternity: He was telling all of us not to trust the institutions and their teachers that have ulterior motives. Not to trust those priests and reverends who wear the robes and the collars to gain the respect of others.
And not to trust those priests and preachers who are getting paid salaries or other benefits such as free houses and cars - in exchange for their preaching services.
Why shouldn't we trust them? Because they have ulterior motives. They have gone into the preaching institution in order to have a "career" so that they can make a living from providing services that should be provided voluntarily, out of love - with no expectation of gaining anything in return.
According to Jesus, we should beware of them.
As Jesus states, "They will receive the greatest consequences.”