I spent the first three days of this week surrounded by bishops, priests, and deacons, which sounds just about as fun as it was. Then I get home and turn to the lessons for this week and I’m given what? More clergy. From Paul to the Hebrews we get the image of perfect clerical service, and from Jesus talking about the Pharisees in Mark, well, not so much.
“There is an old legend that the other priests tied a rope to the leg of the High Priest when he entered the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement. That way, if he died in that Holy Place, they could retrieve his body.”1
That’s serious work for (hopefully) serious people, but the trappings of all that seriousness had a way of going to people’s heads. Jesus told us today to beware the Scribes and Pharisees in their long robes, rubbing their importance in everyone’s faces.
“Those of you familiar with Dante’s The Inferno will recall the hellish punishment Dante imagined would come to hypocrites: for all eternity they would wear the most gorgeous of flowing robes, looking ever-so-lovely on the outside. But those robes would be lined with lead, making the very act of standing up straight an abiding agony. Such would indeed be a fit punishment for those who spent their lives harboring ugliness and selfishness on the inside even as they exuded nothing but superior piety on the outside.”2
One of my old priests, Fr. Doug Freer, was perpetually on guard when it came to these things. He made it a habit to seek out the lowest place; he would do his best to sit next to the kitchen or bathroom during banquets. The worst thing in the world, to him, would be to sit at the head table with a wedding party or awards banquet.
We get the contrast of that today from Jesus. “In a public place and likely within earshot of his targets, Jesus hurls a scathing insult at the scribes by urging the crowd to be wary of them. The scribes of Jesus’ day were experts in the Law of Moses, scholars to whom people turned for proper understanding of God’s will as revealed in Scripture…. Jesus publicly criticizes their behavior as a ceaseless grasping for honor. The Talmud notes that when two people meet in the marketplace, the one inferior in knowledge of the Law should greet the other first. Since no one knew the Law as well as the scribes, they sought out and basked in this recognition. In the synagogue the scribes claimed the best seats which were those on a platform facing the people. People seated on these chairs rested their backs against the same wall that held the ark which contained the Torah scrolls. At banquets, the best seats were reserved for people of importance like experts in the Law. Jesus concludes his attack by accusing the scribes of “devouring widows’ houses.” No sooner has Jesus spoken than a widow comes along and places two of the smallest coins in first-century Palestine into the coffers, thus fulfilling her religious duty. ”3
There’s much to praise about this poor widow; despite being poor, disenfranchised, most likely always living on the verge of having nothing and losing what little she had, she gives from her heart, a true sacrificial gift. Jesus, though, laments the moment and the widow’s circumstance; He’s angry with the Scribes and Pharisees who give only out of their riches, who give to be seen. Those hypocrites then allow that poor widow to bankrupt herself right in front of them. Either greedy for that widow’s mite or dismissive of her entirely or both, Jesus’ anger towards them is obvious.
This is why we talk so much about the mission and ministry of our parish and how money fits into that. Should we have nice, shiny things? Flowing robes and gorgeous music? Of course we should, as these things not only glorify God but can be shared with all; they belong, in a way, to everyone who worships here. But even as the Church needs money to survive and we need to be ever mindful of how that money is used, we also have a Christian duty to remember the poor in all things, to fight against how expensive it is to be poor in this country, to push back against the unjust systems in government and in our economy that take and take from those who have the least to give.
We make a good beginning of that with our budget here, which our Finance Committee so excellently puts together every year, a budget that reflects the preservation of our legacy here as well as our very focused work in our community. I strive to do that in my own budget and I’m sure you all do as well, and I hope that you will join the voices which call out for the protection of the most vulnerable amongst us. That’s serious business, but I know that your robes aren’t lined with lead.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-27b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel