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“I’m the meat in the sandwich”

In the hearing of all the people he [Jesus of Nazareth c. AD 30] said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all her life.” Luke 20: 45 - 21: 4
A new year is good time for taking stock, for assessing the things that surround us and shape our lives. What constantly surrounds me? What shapes my life – often without me realizing it? In practice it’s extremely difficult to identify the basic factors which radically influence me – that shape the way that I am.

In the final few days before his death by crucifixion (and his rising again) Jesus brought to the attention of those around him all of these major basic factors. Another of them (see last week’s Info) is part and parcel of the incident recorded by Luke, the historian, writing around AD 62. What basic but highly influential factor in people’s lives is identified in this incident?

The scribes were lawyers and teachers. They came from every section of Jewish society. The literature of that time discloses a commander of the Temple fortress, a wine merchant, a carpenter, a leather worker, a flax comber and a day laborer – all being scribes. 

For economic reasons even the most respected rabbis undertook writing and copying of Scripture (hence the descriptive noun “scribe”). All however were intelligent, able people who were qualified to be in that position in society. They were often chosen to pass judgment in disputes.


‘All greatness is unconscious - or it is little and nought.’ (Walter Scott, novelist and poet, 1771-1832)
But there was something which surrounded them and shaped them – something which they couldn’t see for themselves – and wouldn’t have accepted even when told about it. What was it?

In Luke’s record of Jesus’ description of the scribes their “presence” stands out: distinctive clothing; known to all the economic movers and shakers; top-table guests at formal functions. 

But two things in Jesus’ description stand out as unacceptable – the two last-mentioned by Jesus: “they devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers”. We know that scribes often hid from enquirers the reasons for their decisions about the law, right behavior and morality. Their special knowledge – undisclosed – seems to have allowed them to harm the weak. At the same time, their holiness-in-pretense prayers covered their backs.

This incident took place in the final week before Jesus was condemned to death and crucified. No sooner had Jesus said this to his disciples that a widow – a poor widow – maybe a defrauded widow – places two small copper coins into the Temple treasure box. Two lepta. Each of these, in today’s money was worth 50 pence. To this day I can’t fathom how she, in her poverty, could give away both coins… “She put in all her life.”

What an amazing contrast. All her life was given to others. What about the scribes? And what about Jesus? Was he a “scribe” – a lover of law, a lover of written commands, and, over it all, primarily a lover of himself?

Is this another mega thing that shapes our lives, that hems us into courses of action and lifestyles which we see are “good” because they are good for us?


‘Really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not in them but through them.’ (John Ruskin, artist and writer, 1819-1900)
Lest Christians should find themselves also loving long robes, Luke records that, a few hours after the above incident, “a dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”

Most of us have never argued with others about which of us is the greatest. But, time and time again, we’ve “kept our end up” – we've all sought to show that in one way or another – I’m better than, superior to, more qualified and more experienced than x, y and z. That has to be recognised.

Yes, this is a pervasive, unseen, “truth” which governs human lives to their detriment. Because, with that truth, what can’t I do to others? Because with that truth, what have I already done to others?

Sinner Syvret

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