12:38-40 – For regular students of the Bible, it might be hard to recapture just how shocking these teachings of Jesus were. He continues his attacks on “the teachers of the Law,” a category that would have included many of the familiar foes of the Gospels—Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, etc. It’s perhaps worth remembering that these men were often among the most revered in society. Some of the greatest rabbis (that is, “teachers of the Law”) in the Jewish rabbinic tradition came from Jesus’ own period of Jewish theology—names like Hillel, Shammai, and Gamaliel, still revered among Jews to this day. Even among the religious leaders that the public didn’t always like very much (think Sadducees here), they were still offered great honor because of their important position in Jewish religious rites. Yet Jesus warns his disciples to watch out for these teachers of the Law, and he points out not their doctrine, but their daily habits of life. Why? Because a dangerous teacher will often be easier to spot in his daily living than in his doctrine. Jesus actually agrees theologically with much of the Pharisaical position (as in questions about the Scriptural canon, the resurrection of the dead, angels, etc., all issues of debate in the Jewish theology of that day), but he recognizes that the Pharisaical way of living out their beliefs leads to a dead-end of faith. It becomes faith by the rules, for the rules’ sake, rather than a faith directed toward the God who lovingly offers a rule of life—a rule suited towards opening our lives toward freedom, joy and love. Instead, the Pharisees have taken that rule and made it hard and narrow, a rite of passage which only they and a few other ascetic exemplars might be able to obtain. In this particular passage, Jesus directs attention towards the teachers’ attachment to public acclaim. The teachers of the Law are faulted for making their teachings an opportunity for personal gain, for showmanship. Such behavior shows that they do not truly understand the Law of which they claim to be teachers. The Law of God (especially as interpreted through the Prophets) is crafted toward shaping hearts of justice and compassion for one’s neighbors and fellow-men, and especially for widows and orphans. But these men have made it about themselves. Jesus highlights this mark of dangerous teachers, because this danger is particularly easy to see. Most people have a fairly good sense of when others are putting themselves rather too much in the spotlight. This is a necessary warning not only for the believers of Jesus’ day, but of ours as well, because many of the things that he says about these teachers could just as easily be said about some of our pastors.
12:41-44 – Jesus follows up his warnings about religious showmanship with a concrete example. He points out the rich people who were throwing large amounts of offerings into the Temple treasury, an act that was clearly visible and thus probably done with a good bit of fanfare (especially when one considers that the currency in use would have been a noisy sackful of coins, not a discreet paper bill or personal check). Jesus directs his disciples’ attention away from the rich people’s gifts, and toward the poor widow. His point is not that all of the rich are horrible people, nor even that they are simply in it for the attention and acclaim—he doesn’t say anything of the kind. What he does say, though, is that their gifts don’t actually compare to the gift of the poor widow. They have given a lot, yes, but they have plenty to spare. She, on the other hand, has given everything. Some of the rich may well have been pious people who gave to God with glad and sincere hearts; others were probably just making a pompous show of their giving. But the widow’s gift is the kind that God can truly use—it is the gift of total commitment, the gift of loving God so much that one is willing to give him everything one has—money, home, skills, assets, even life itself. She gave more because she gave all. Our God is not an accountant or a hedge-fund manager. He’s not looking for the big endowments; after all, “he owns the cattle on a thousand hills”! No, our God is a Lover, and he wants us, our whole selves in total, faithful commitment to him.