And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ (NRSV)
The temple was the core symbol of Jewish national identity. It stood in the centre of Jerusalem and symbolised all Israel hoped for. It was a hub of activity comprising the nation’s political, social, legal, historical, and, of course, religious life.
One can imagine the emotions that such a place invoked in a primarily rural culture. A myriad of pilgrims arrived here each day from all walks of life. The extravagant buildings would have inspired awe in Jewish peasants as they passed through the magnificent gates. These walls sustained a fierce national pride.
To be in them was to belong to something greater.
But as we read we get the distinct impression that Jesus saw something very different. He observes from his own distinct, even heavenly, vantage point. The stones honed to perfection were not his primary focus. The riches and history did not distract his gaze. Somehow Jesus seems above the hype.
Even here Jesus still sees clearly. So much so that he feels compelled to issue a public warning about temple culture. He can not bring himself to hide what he sees. Rather Jesus offers some of his most public teaching in this place. It is designed to re-focus the distracted perspective of anyone who will listen.
So, after drawing a large and delighted crowd Jesus offers a fairly straight talk. We are now confronted with a stark, and very public, assessment of the scribal movement that dominates this amazing place. On the most famous scribal turf Jesus paints his dangerous picture.
Our passage invites our imagination to soar: we can see him pointing to flowing robes and shaking his head at each ritual greeting that draws attention to cherished positions of honour. Perhaps Jesus has to raise his voice over the drone of wordy and elaborate prayers.
But at its core Jesus is not attacking these practices. This is a warning about the scribal leaders. Two words stand out: ‘like’ and ‘appearance’.
Yes, Jesus is concerned about what attracts and motivates. They are here for the accolades. They like this system of symbol and status. Everywhere Jesus turns in the temple he sees religion that cares for position, ornamentation, honour, greed, and advancement. Jesus sees an alarming contentment with this wafer-thin, white-washed religion.
His words highlight the voracious appetite of a supposedly God-honoring system that would devour the homes of widows in order to keep itself fed. In this place there are also sobering and stark reminders of the presence of both power and its constant companion – powerlessness.
And I am left wondering at the ‘delight’ of the crowd. Are they pleased that someone is finally giving voice to that which is at once unspeakable and at the same time blatantly obvious?