[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church called "A Tale of Two Religions". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
While our study this past Sunday was on Mark 12:35-44, I would like to focus on the last four verses. Here, there is a distinction drawn between the rich people and the poor widow. It is a stark contrast. Jesus has just finished condemning the superficial, hypocritical religious activity of the scribes...activity that would earn them "the greater condemnation" (v. 40b).
Next, He sits down to watch people put their money in the offering box in the temple. While this text will ultimately be about the condition of the heart, do not be mistaken...Jesus sees how much is given. He sees the "rich people put in large sums" (v. 41b), and He sees a poor widow who "put in two small copper coins" (v. 42a). Then, Jesus judges what He has seen. He exalts the giving of the widow rather over the giving of the rich. Jesus concludes that she is generous, giving "more than all those who are contributing to the offering box" (v. 43). As we hear these words and we see this scene, we nod in agreement. Jesus is right; He is perfectly wise and has assessed this situation accurately.
What we see here is that Jesus is assessing the heart condition of the woman giving, not just calculating her gift as a % of income. External matters, like % of income, can be deceiving...but Jesus sees the heart. That was the whole problem Jesus had with the scribes...they appeared spiritually together on the exterior, but beneath the surface was the clear stench of depravity. We should take heed to Jesus warning and "beware of the scribes." We shouldn't just beware of the scribes "out there" somewhere...we should beware of the scribal tendency in our own flesh. Let's take a couple of minutes to think about this warning.
To do that, take your Bible, turn to Matthew 6, and take time to read verses 1-18 (I'll be writing under the assumption that you have your Bible open...just so you know). Here, we find the warning to "beware" applied to three areas of spiritual life. These areas are important spiritual disciplines...they are giving, praying, and fasting. Each warning follows the general statement in verse 1: "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."
Let's walk through these one by one:
1. Beware in your giving. Read verse 2 again...can you imagine something like this actually happening? Say you get off the interstate, see a homeless man without legs begging for money, and you give him some cash. Then, before driving off, you lay on the horn for a few seconds and yell out the window, "Lord, I sure hope some other people will show this same kind of generosity!" That's about as ridiculous as what Jesus describes here. Of course, being seen in giving is often much more subtle and deceiving than that...and we must avoid drawing attention to our giving.
2. Beware in your praying. Verses 5-6 deal with our prayer lives. Have you ever bowed your head to pray at a restaurant because you figured other people were watching and you wanted them to see you praying? After all, it's Sunday afternoon, and you're in "church clothes." Well, while there's nothing wrong with giving thanks for God's provision of food in a public restaurant...we should receive all food with thankfulness (1 Tim. 4:3-5). However, praying to be seen praying is exactly what Jesus says we must avoid!
3. Beware in your fasting. Fasting, especially fasting for an extended period of time, is a difficult discipline. Some can't do it for health reasons...that's because fasting isn't the normal way of life. Normal life means eating on a regular basis; eating is a God-given means of sustaining life. So, when one sacrifices this in order to seek the Lord, it can be hard. You may feel weak, get headaches, etc. The temptation is to wear that feeling on your sleeve so someone will say, "Is everything okay?" Then, you can respond, "Well, I've been fasting for four days now. It's been really hard, and I'm just feeling a bit tired...don't worry about me." Jesus says beware of this.
Rather than "blowing our own horn" when we give, we should do so in secret. Rather than praying to be seen and heard as "pray-ers", we must make sure our heart is aimed toward the Father and not toward others. Rather than dramatizing our spiritual disciplines so they are recognized, we should simply act as we would any other day.
Why? Why should our giving, praying, and fasting be hidden rather than displayed? Well, the answer is in the scary words of Jesus. These are found in verses 2, 5, and 16. When we make a show of our spiritual lives...hoping that people recognize us for it...at least give their approval of it...Jesus looks at us and says, "they have received their reward." In other words, the "wow"s, the accolades, the plaques, and any other human recognition are our only reward.
So, when we look back at Mark 12, we remember that the spiritual lives of the scribes were on display for all to see. We see that they loved the honor of men...they loved the special seats at feasts and in the synagogue...they loved the titles. And Jesus would say, "they have received their reward." For while they may be greatly rewarded in this life, when they stand before God, "they will receive the greater condemnation" (Mk. 12:40). That is scary!
Now, let's look at our own lives...why do we do what we do? Why did we give what we gave this last Sunday? Why did we pray at lunch today? Do we want to be seen? Are we looking for reward from men, or are we looking for reward from God? Let us constantly be testing our hearts, testing our motives, so that we can look forward to the reward from our Father, who sees in secret and rewards what He sees.