"Jesus' Problem with the Bible Scribes"
A sermon based on Luke 20:45 - 21:4
On Palm Sunday (in two weeks), we’ll talk about the great Green Parade -- the story of children cheering for Jesus as he enters Jerusalem… and the disciples out among the crowd waving palm branches. I love the liturgical re-enactment that was occurring -- the royal metaphors (calling Jesus “King” & “Son of David”) and the cry “Hosanna” which means (in Hebrew) “Save us!”
I like to imagine Jesus riding in on a donkey; and then Jesus chasing merchants and money-changers out of the Temple; as well as all the rest of the drama that marks the start of Holy Week. We’ll look at all that… two weeks from today, on Palm Sunday.
But for now, I’d like to pick up the story as Jesus began teaching in the Temple, because it may give us a clue as to why some people in the crowd turned against him after such a promising beginning. Jesus was speaking:
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and who love
salutations in the marketplaces, and who like to have the best seats in the
synagogues (which is up front on the podium, right beside the Torah table,
facing out so that their words would be heard by the whole congregation --
kind’a like where I stand up here..!) and who like the places of honor at
feasts... Beware of them!” Jesus warns his listeners. And I wonder, why?
Why we should be wary, and why he should say such a thing in the Temple of all places. Why is Jesus picking on other religious folks? Doesn’t he know that will stir up the authorities all that much more against him?
For Jesus to criticize the scribes -- who were the writers of Scripture, copiers of Torah onto huge parchment scrolls, men who were proud of their Bible memorization skills! -- would be like us complaining about the Gideons (who publish & place Bibles in hotel rooms around the world… and who hand them out free to students, and to prisoners, to soldiers and to waiters, and such) -- or the Wycliffe Bible Translators (who publish Bibles in every imaginable language across the globe), and others who teach the Bible everyday in lunchrooms and in offices and in after-school clubs.
What does Jesus have against “Bible scribes” who obviously take their religion very seriously and who clearly want others to do the same? Why bring these complaints into Jerusalem’s Temple (for God’s sake!), the very site of the scribe’s school itself: where the religious traditions of Torah were most clearly taught… taught by the top authorities (Teachers of the Law)!?
I believe that Jesus addresses his criticism, first, to the Bible scribes themselves… because they needed to hear it! And second, to his disciples, because he was concerned that they -- who were in position to become the new leaders in the church -- not be like those scribes & teachers of the Law.
Frankly, I see a great temptation for church folks (preachers especially!) to fall into the patterns of these Bible scribes, but we do so “unawares!” And all Jesus asks of us -- we who wish to be leaders in his religious movement -- is to BEWARE of these patterns. To be AWARE of them.
As an ordained minister in a “Reformed” tradition, my official preaching garb in worship is a long, black robe. My clergy robe is patterned after the European college professor’s (like John Calvin or Martin Luther wore, or like a British lawyer’s) or an American judge’s long, black robe of formal authority worn when engaged in that official role.
But Jesus says: “Beware of the scribes, who like to “walk around” in long robes, and [like] to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.” That warning from Jesus (the Head of the Church) is enough to cause some “Bible preachers” to refuse to wear a robe in worship (just think of that very popular preacher Joel Osteen or Saddleback’s Rick Warren). Some “Bible-believing” preachers point fingers at us “mainline Church” ministers who still do wear robes as being somehow “unscriptural”! Didn’t Jesus say we shouldn’t do it?
But I would like to suggest that it is precisely that kind of ATTITUDE of (presumed) scriptural superiority & pride which Jesus is complaining about, not the (literal) wearing of robes. It’s looking down on others that’s the “sin”!
You see, the robe as an official symbol of one’s role, while engaged in the formal function for which it is authorized, is entirely acceptable. But you won’t see me wearing it out on the street, nor even during coffee hour… or at Monday morning Bible study. No, the “robe” is strictly for worship services.
My clergy collar, yes; that’s different. I wear a clergy collar whenever I am “on duty” as your Minister. Even on the street. Yes, even when I’m at the Black Sheep having a burger & a beer, or sitting on the panel at Drug Court. You see, I wear it as a “yoke” (which is its actual name, in fact, not a “collar”). I wear it as a symbol of my submission to Christ and of my reliance on the Holy Spirit -- not primarily as formal “worship-related” garb. The clergy collar reminds me that God is always present at my side and within my heart – I am invisibly “yoked” to the Holy Spirit of Jesus alongside me, giving me forward direction and necessary strength to help me pull through what I’m called to do.
But what would you think if you saw me on the street, eating lunch or going shopping, while still wearing my official black robe of pulpit authority? Silly, right?
Let’s make it not be about me: think Judge Judy on TV… or Judge Thomas LaCross at District Court… or Judge Mike Mack at Circuit Court. Out of court, what does a judge’s robe signify? Nothing. (!) So why would a judge, or a college professor, or a preacher like me be caught wearing their long robes of authority outside? (!) In order to be seen, of course! Hoping that the status from their position would go with them in their person! The robe would indicate their social importance. It would tell the world who they were! (But, in reality, it would be pathetic.) Respect for one’s position is honorable … but grasping for recognition is not. That’s what Jesus saw happening!
Relying on one’s public position in the community, rather than on one’s personal character, is a poor example of leadership. At best, it’s a form of hypocrisy -- putting on a false front, a masked face (like we talked about last Sunday) -- at worst, it could lead to abuses “in private.” Jesus knew that “putting on” the outer garb of “piety”, without having a good & godly heart, is destructive to the community of faith. Jesus does not want his disciples to follow the pattern and practices of the scribes & Pharisees when they become leaders when he is gone. (And need I remind you? Jesus’ arrest & crucifixion is almost on us -- Good Friday is April 19, only three weeks away!)
The “scribes & Pharisees” that Jesus is criticizing there in the Temple were the Bible authorities of Jesus’ day.
I would call them “Bible scholars” because the scribes knew their Scriptures! To do their job, they had to know the Bible inside out, backwards and forwards. (And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se…!) The best scribes were meticulous & correct in their work. To be good at their job, the scribes had to be both “literal and inerrant”! It was their profession to know every jot & tittle of the Law (the placement of every Hebrew ‘yod’ or Greek ‘iota’ – as well as every accent mark or punctuation point) in the Biblical text. It was an enormous, precious, and difficult task to write the Hebrew Bible by hand! The scribes were attentive to the written Word of Holy Scripture in all its minute detail. The need for copies of “Torah-scrolls” in every synagogue put the Bible Scribes in high demand.
But… does their knowledge of the Bible make them “better” than others? (!) Does their expertise in their profession give them rights to “lord over” others? (!) It seems to me that Jesus is saying: “Beware of those who assume that their “positional” authority in their worksite puts them above others in society.” It’s not just those who handle Holy Scripture, but any job…
The senior partner, for example, who assumes privileges in the personal realm among the firm’s associates (think “#MeToo”); or the spouse, who may be a “big boss” at work, who then assumes that position of authority on the job also gives them rights to dictate terms in the home. Beware…
Or it may be the reverse... The unemployed person, who assumes that having “no value” in the marketplace carries over into having “no worth” as a human being.
Or… to assume that the inferred “inferiority” of some others -- whoever they are, people that you consider less than your “kind” -- leads very easily to the corollary belief in the “superiority” of oneself. One cannot presume “higher status” for some people without assuming that others must have lower status. That’s the root prejudice of racism & classism & sexisim. (!) We divide the community along many lines. The Hebrew word “Pharisee” means a “divider ”.
Because (in their line of work) the scribes had memorized so much Scripture, they assumed that they deserved places of honor -- places that denoted higher “social rank” than the common folk who didn’t know their Bible as well as they did.
“Beware” says Jesus, of those who assume that their “positional” authority puts them above others in society. It’s one’s “personal” character (one’s value as a human being) that Jesus wants to address, regardless of one’s “social position.” So, please notice: he does not complain about scribes (in general), who are functioning in their realm of official duties... He only points an accusing finger at those Bible scholars who step out of their appropriate role and try to assume inappropriate status in society.
The Bible scribes chose seats which put them in view of the people, so that their presence would be noted -- near the front, so they’d be available to lend their wisdom to any discussion which might arise. They loved being addressed as “Rabbi” /Master-teacher.
Because they worked with Scripture, the scribes had Bible quotes ready on the tip of their tongue as well as Bible ink under their fingernails. (!) And while I’m sure there are plenty of Bible-believing church-going folk in our day who would say “Bravo!” to such dedicated servants of Scripture, Jesus says: “Beware of such scribes!” In other words: Don’t be like them!
Why not? Aren’t Christians supposed to quote the Bible? Aren’t we supposed to honor our Ministers, our Preachers, our Sunday School teachers and Bible study leaders? --?-- What was Jesus’ problem with these scribes?
First of all, priests were the “liturgical” church leadership of their day. Priests provided religious services in the Temple, including sacrifices on the altar. The “high priest” (who was appointed by Rome) and the Levites (who were “worker bees” in the Temple) came to an abrupt end when the Temple was destroyed by the Roman Army in the year 70. However, up until then it was always the priests who wore the official robes (“stolai” in Greek).
The scribes (that Jesus spoke about) took on the affectation of wearing long robes, like the priests and the judges did -- even though they were not ordained, nor trained, nor employed in that ministry…as do some ministers & preachers in our day, who call themselves “reverend” or “doctor” unearned. (Did you know that some churches will “ordain” over the internet… for a fee?)
The Pharisees had an established position (and an honorable one!) as “interpreters” of the Law & the Prophets, but the Bible Scribes were seen more as “book-men” – they were the recorders, or copiers! In in other words, if the Pharisee was a lawyer, the scribe would be the clerk. (or a human Xerox.)
Second, the scribes were not responsible for the worship services of the Temple, and yet they offer long prayers in public! Why?
The scribes not only presumed the right to wear long, fancy robes – they also offered long, fancy prayers -- even though they were not formally recognized as priests. The piety & patriotism of the “scribes and Pharisees” was seen by all in their insistence that everyone must support the Temple! According to them, nothing was more important than that -- even if it meant sacrificing a few widows’ inheritances. “Support your local Temple, because that’s what God wants!”
The story which follows Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes features a widow who donates her last two coins -- all she had to live on! – which is an example of the very thing Jesus is complaining about.
It’s as though the Bible Scribes were saying: “People are only people; it’s maintaining our religious system that really counts!” The survival of our Temple & our traditions requires that all people need to obey all the Bible rules (like we do) … or else God will be displeased! (!) The scribes’ vanity and love of social rank led to heartless exploitation of the unfortunate ones who were subject to their leadership.
Just between us, I believe we have much of which to be proud here in Alpena’s First Church – in our United Church – but let’s beware that it does not create in us a sense of pride which denigrates those people who are less fortunate than we are. (!) There is no place for religious arrogance or intolerance in Jesus’ Church! We need to be open and welcoming of all kinds of people! … But … we must also be aware when someone’s religious views serve like “blind guides” leading the whole church into the ditch together…. Let’s remind them of Jesus’ teachings. Not teachings “about Jesus”… Not doctrines about Jesus, but what Jesus actually said and did – how he trusted God and followed God -- so we who follow him can get back on track with God.
In the end, I believe that Jesus’ warning about not being like the Bible scribes still holds in our day. We should beware: (1) if we think that trusting our “positional power” in society defines us instead of our personal character, (2) if we find ourselves striving for social “status” instead of “solidarity” with others, and (3) if we see someone using the Bible to divide people (us versus them, so-called “sinners” from the so-called “saved”, insisting on right doctrine versus wrong, dividing “insiders” from “outsiders”, and so on) instead of using the Bible to bring us more together.
If we do not become aware of those things, we may find ourselves (like the Bible Scribes of old) more greatly condemned in the end than approved.
Let’s be sure that Alpena’s First Congregational Church (this United Church of Christ) continues to be part of the solution to all that religious rigmarole, and not be part of the problem. Let’s follow Jesus’ lead and welcome those whom others reject… and let us do so in God’s name.