Scribes and Widows

Sermon preached on Luke 20:45-21:4 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/13/2022 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

Today we get to talk about scribes and widows.  Our opening section mentions both, with a focus on condemning certain scribes.  The second section doesn’t mention scribes, but does feature Jesus commending a widow.  So, we’ll have a chance to think about both scribes and widows today.  And while Jesus hands out both condemnations and commendations here, we should note in verse 45 that he does this in the hearing of all the people.  In other words, this is a public action he’s doing; he is public calling out and condemning the practice of so many scribes, while at the same time giving public commendation for this widow and any like her.  Let us dig and study these things to see what Jesus would have us to learn from this today.

Let us begin then by studying the first section in verses 45-47.  Here we see a warning and frankly condemnation of the scribes.  Let us note that Jesus is not,  strictly speaking, condemning all scribes.  In verse 46 he says to “Beware of the scribes who…, and then describes the actions of the scribes he’s critiquing.  That being said, it seems safe to assume that Jesus’ critique was a common enough example that this effectively comes across as addressing the stereotypical scribe at the time.  While surely there are scribes who didn’t fit this description, Jesus addresses here all the many who did fit this description.

So then, stepping back, let’s make sure we understand who these scribes are.  The scribes were the experts in Jewish law and theology.  Sometimes they were also called lawyers, though I remind you that to say they were experts in the law, we are referring to the Mosaic law, and not like Roman civil law or anything like that.  In other words, these were the pastors and bible scholars of their day.  While traditionally, it would have been the job of the priests to be the experts in God’s law, a greater interest in God’s law slowly resulted in a more specialized class of people who devoted themselves full time to the scholarly study of the law.  So these were people whose full time job was to study the law, and they’d have opportunities to teach it and advise on it, and likewise they’d could be consulted in judicial matters as well.  While we often hear of these scribes connected with the Pharisees, it was not necessary that a scribe be a Pharisee.  What I mean is that you could have had such experts in the law who were of either the party of the Pharisees or of the Sadducees.  The main point is that they were full time students of God’s Word and thus were typically held in great honor and high esteem.  People would look up to them and think them to be wise and godly people.

So then, Jesus warns how so many scribes really came to crave such honors.  Ultimately, such scribes were proud, self-centered, and lovers of self.  Look at the list of things they would do.  Jesus says they would go walking around in long robes.  In other words, they had clothing that when they wore it would draw attention to themselves as scribes.  In context, we see that Jesus is especially critical of the way they would do this in order to draw attention to themselves to receive praise from men.  In other words, they’d go for walks in their special robes for the purpose of getting attention.  As an example of this, imagine if someone was a police officer.  If an officer puts on his uniform and goes to work and along the way some people see him and thank him for his service, then that is all well and good.  But it would be a different thing if the officer puts on his uniform on his off time and just goes walking around downtown just so he could get people to thank him.  This then is similar to the next thing Jesus mentioned in verse 46, that they loved greetings.  In a similar way with their going walking in their robes, they’d seek out attention in the marketplaces to try get as many greetings from the people as possible.  They’d go walking about the public places looking for people to come up and greet them, surely not looking for just a simple hello, but to be greeting with various honorary titles befitting their status as scribe and praising their person.  Again, the idea is that they loved the attention and so they sought out ways in which they will get praised and honored.

Another way that Jesus addresses this same concern is to say that such scribes loved the best seats at the synagogues and at the feasts.  Remember, synagogues were basically their local churches.  So, they’d make sure they got the best seat in the house (which I am sure was in the front row).  Likewise, they’d make sure they got a very honorable seat at a feast.  Remember, like say at a wedding feast, the closer you are seated to the bride and groom is the more honorable seat.  Realize what this shows.  By expecting such best and honorable seats, they think their position as a scribe warranted such special privileges.  They thought their position as such a scholar and pastor and teacher of God’s Word meant they should get put above others.  So, they craved and loved such honor, and so they made a point to try to get as much of it as they could.

The last thing Jesus warned here about these scribes is how they would devour widows’ houses.  What this refers to is how the scribes would take advantage of the hospitality of widows.  Scribes would often be the recipient of widows opening up their homes and feeding them and caring for them.  This was especially the case with scribes who would travel around teaching God’s Word.  Such scribes were not being thoughtful about the widows’ circumstances and were taking advantage of their kindness to the point of eating these widows out of house and home.  We’ll talk more on this in a moment when we talk about widows, but you could imagine various circumstances where this would be the case that the scribes sinfully burdened the widows.  For example, an early Christian document called the Didache spoke against missionaries who would abuse the hospitality they received as they traveled along in their ministry.  For example, the Didache advised that if a missionary stayed for three days or more in someone’s home, then he must be a false prophet.  The Didache is not the Bible, of course, but surely it is addressing the sort of circumstances Jesus has in mind here.  These scribes could do various things to take way too much from a widow.  They might stay too long, they might ask for money that she doesn’t have, they might ask for expensive foods, and more.

As we hear Jesus give these various warning about such scribes, let us pause and recognize a truth about the other side of this.  It is a godly thing to honor and respect your spiritual leaders.  The Bible tells us this repeatedly in passages such as 1 Timothy 5:7, 1 Thessalonians 5:12, Philippians 2:29, and more.  Likewise, the Bible commands us to show hospitality, certainly and especially to missionaries, in passages such as Hebrews 13:2, Romans 12:13, Luke 10:7, and more.  This is the interesting tension here in this warning about the scribes.  And so, for a scribe to receive honor and hospitality wasn’t inherently wrong.  But it’s the way these scribes sought these things out.  Their job as scribe was to study and teach God’s Word and they should be honored and blessed in the process.  But they were making their jobs about seeking out the honor and the gifts.  It’s like we talked so much in Luke’s gospel against the love of money.  Well, these scribes have a love of the honor and love the of gifts they got for their work.  That became their interest and focus so they were putting their heart into seeking such things out instead of putting their heart into their ministry of the Word.

So then, notice the summary of all this in verse 47.  Jesus says that such scribes who craved such attention, that they would receive the greater condemnation.  Notice the idea of a greater condemnation.  All people are sinners, and all deserve God’s condemnation.  And while every single sin is sufficient to damn us to hell, not all sin is as equally heinous.  All sin is wrong, but some sin is worse than others.  And the Bible teaches then that even in the afterlife, when the wicked find themselves in hell, that there will be degrees of punishment.  Some will have a worse experience in hell than others.  Our God is a just God and he will not give people an unfair punishment.  But that means that some will indeed receive a greater judgment than others.

Let us now turn to the second section to consider verses 1-4.  We’ll think about widows and this one particular widow highlighted here.  When we thought about scribes we thought about a particular kind of scribe that essentially was a sort of stereotype of scribes at that time.  Let’s begin to do that for a moment on widows.  What was the stereotype of a widow back then?  Well, a widow is a woman whose husband had died.  So because the husband was generally the primary financial provider for the family, that meant they were generally in a worse financial situation.  And because a spouse is generally the closest companion someone has, then they were also without that special relationship.  If the kids are grown up and either out of the house or otherwise busy with their lives, the widow might find they don’t have a lot of close companions.  So then, being a widow, stereotypically speaking, meant that you were at risk of poverty and loneliness.  To clarify, it didn’t necessarily mean that you always were super poor, and surely some widows had a lot more laid up in advance for them than others.  And likewise, surely some widows had a lot more extended family and friends for companionship.  But nonetheless, being a widow typically involved more degrees of poverty and loneliness than if they had not been a widow.  That is stereotypical situation for a widow back then.  Circumstances are not identical today, but there are certainly some similarities yet today.

So then, think of how this relates to what we were talking about a moment ago with a widow showing hospitality to a scribe, especially one traveling through and needing a place to stay.  A widow, especially a godly widow, would generally delight to open up her home and show hospitality to a scribe passing through.  They’d tend to want to be super generous and go out of their way to show great honor and thoughtfulness and kindness to the scribe.  She would appreciate his company when he is there.  Of all the people in the church who might host the scribe, she might be one of the people most excited to do it, and yet also the one with the least means to do it.  I’ve witnessed many a widow who commendably is of such a sort.  They love God and they love God’s people and they love the pastors and teachers in the church.  They want to bless them even beyond what they probably could or should.  My point is that this is a very commendable desire of such widows who so desire; it is a reflection of their commendable love of God and neighbor.

So then, we have this case study of a particular widow.  Jesus observes the rich who are giving their gifts at the church.  They come in and put their money into the offering box.  The parallel account in Matthew explicitly tells us that they were giving big gifts.  That is subtly implied here in verse 4 when it mentions how the rich were giving out of their abundance.  But of course, this widow, being a typical widow, did not have money in abundance.  She could only give out of her poverty, if in fact she was to give.  But again, in commendable love of God she did give, even though she was in such a state of poverty.

I like to draw people’s attention here that it says that she gave all the money that she had.  In other words, that is 100% of her money.  The others might have given significant portions of their income.  We could imagine a rather common amount would have been at least their 10% tithe of their recent income.  But this woman did far more than that.  This wasn’t just a portion of her recent income.  This was all of her complete life savings.  This is all that she had left to live on.

So then, I like to point out then that she had two coins and she gave them both.  These coins, by the way, were known as lepta, which would have signaled that they were the smallest denomination of coin in use.  Conceptually that would be like our penny, but in terms of value, the coins in today’s money might be worth a dollar or two each.  So, she might be able to make it stretch to feed her a few more meager meals, maybe.  But she had two coins and gave both of them.  I mentioned percentages a moment ago.  If she had given one of the two coins, she would have surely still given the largest percentage of any of the people there that day.  I’m sure none of them were giving 50% of their life savings that day.  But she didn’t give 50%, she gave 100%.

There is an interesting matter of wisdom and faith to consider her for a moment.  I wouldn’t normally advise a church member to fully exhaust all their financial resources in giving to the church.  Part of our duties before God is not only cheerful giving to God, but also being wise stewards of what God has entrusted to us.  That includes stewarding our bodies and their health, and like how they need food to function properly.  While I commend cheerful and generous giving, I have certainly counseled peoples that they shouldn’t give money they don’t have, and they do need to exercise wisdom and prudence in determining how much to give.  Sometimes I’ve seen church members be foolish in so generous of giving that they’ve negatively affected their ability to care for other things that God would have them to care for.  So, generally speaking, surely wisdom would not have us to give 100% of our wealth to the church.

And yet in her case, this widow’s 100% giving is surely an expression of how she is going all in with the LORD.  She is not just poor, she is practically broke.  There can come such extreme moments where just going all in with the LORD is the only option that makes sense.  I remember that widow of Zarephath during the famine of Elijah’s day.  She was about to have her last meal and then plan to starve to death when the prophet Elijah arrived and she trusted God so as to open up her home to him and receive him in hospitality.  At first, she expressed concern of her extreme poverty to Elijah who then encouraged her to have faith (c.f. 1 Kings 17).  That trust on God was not misplaced, for that was the widow whose jars of oil and flour miraculously never ran out until after the famine ended.  God provided for that widow who went all in with him.  Yet, what other hope did she even have?  But when hope seems gone, we should turn to God and put all our hope in him.

So then, see how Jesus describes what she did.  Verse 3, “Truly, I tell you this poor widow has put in more than all of them.”  Do you see what Jesus does there?  He commends her.  He commends her generous giving and surely the trust in God that it implied.  But he doesn’t just commend her.  His commendation is comparative.  He says that she contributed more than the others because of the nature of her giving out of poverty and their giving out of abundance.  Let’s be clear, it was not wrong of the rich people to give out of their abundance.  They didn’t do anything wrong in giving out of their riches.  There is nothing critically said in this passage about their giving.  In terms of their giving, in and of itself, that was a good thing.  But in comparison, her giving is even more commendable.  She gave more because she gave out of her great poverty.  It representative a great faith and trust and worship of God for her to give so radically, whereas for the other rich folks it was a relatively easy thing for them to give their gifts.  Again, their giving was good.  But her giving was better!

I hope you see the parallel here with the first section.  The scribes received a degree of condemnation worse than others.  Here, this widow receives a commendation better than others.  And like how we said that at the final judgment there will be degrees of punishment, so too the saved in glory will receive degrees of reward.  What a wonderful contrast in how we see these degrees of condemnation and commendation, punishment and reward, here in this passage today. 

Of course, ultimately, to have the hope to receive any reward, we need to recognize how spiritually poor we are, and go all in with Jesus.  We need to trust in Jesus for salvation and eternal life.

Brothers and sisters, in conclusion there are so many practical applications to take from this passage.  As a pastor, I’ve been blessed with so many expressions from you all of honor, love, and gifts.  I have to guard my heart to make sure I labor for Christ and not in seeking rewards from men.  Thank you for such, but pray I would have my heart in the right place.  And that is a lesson for all of us, especially when you find yourself in some position of earthly prestige.  Let us look to humble ourselves, and leave it to God or others to exalt us if they see fit.

And in terms of giving, may we indeed be generous and cheerful givers, and may our giving be an expression that our hope is not in the world but in Christ.  And let us pray that we would see things as Jesus sees them.  It is easy to look at the big gifts the rich are able to give and get really excited, but let us also see how valuable sacrificial giving is.

In all this, may we strive for greater godliness.  We said at the start that Jesus taught this in front of all the people.  And there is a sense that where we end up ultimately will be a thing of public record, so to speak.  For Christ will come again and when he does he will acknowledge his people to be his own redeemed.  Let us labor for him here and now, pursing the greater commendation.  How can we read a passage like this and be content with just meagerly living for Christ.  Let us strive by his grace to live as commendably as possible for him.  For he has loved us so much. 


Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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