Widow’s mite: scribes

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna38 In the course of his teaching he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, 39 seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.’

There is always a pause when I read this passage. Being a Franciscan Friar, I go around in long robes, inevitably accept greetings as I move out and about, whether I want it or not, I end up in the places of honor at banquets, and in the church, and I occupy the ‘big chair’ reserved for the presider at Mass. During Mass, some parishioners might accuse me of reciting lengthy homilies  (hopefully not as a pretext). The only part for which I am hopefully safe is devouring the houses of widows. Perhaps it is cautionary pause.

The description of the scribes lists what could be seen as normal privileges of the aristocracy in a traditional society: wearing long, ornate robes; being greeted by others when they go out in public; having the best seats in public gatherings; and indulging in elaborate banquets (vv. 38–39; cf. the rich man in Luke 16:19; Jas 2:2–3). But who are these scribes? Stoffregen provides a very nice summary which I copy here.

Generally, they were people who could read and write. The Greek word translated ‘scribe’ is grammateus which comes from grapho = ‘to write.’ The same is true of the word ‘scribe,’ which comes from the Latin scribo = ‘to write.’

Scribes were common in many countries of the Near East. They were more than copyists. The title became synonymous with being educated, e.g., in 1 Cor 1:20 ‘scribe’ is used in parallel to ‘wise’ and ‘debater’. Some scribes were legal and biblical experts. Note that in Luke 5:17 ‘Pharisees and teachers of the law’ (nomodidaskalos) is used, but later, in the same setting, it is ‘scribes and the Pharisees’ (5:21), thus the scribes in that story were teachers of the law.

Perhaps more than defining ‘scribes’ as they were understood in the first century, we need to understand what Mark and his (Gentile) readers might have understood by ‘scribes.’ The following is what Mark tells us about ‘scribes’ in other verses.

  • They were teachers (without the authority of Jesus) 1:22
  • They frequently question Jesus (their method of teaching and learning):
    • about forgiving sins (2:6)
    • about eating with sinners and tax collectors (2:16)
    • about eating with defiled hands (7:1, 5)
    • about the source of his authority (11:27)
    • about the first commandment (12:28, 32)
  • They accuse Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebul (3:22)
  • They will be part of those who reject Jesus (8:31; 10:33)
  • They (as Bible experts) say that Elijah must come first (9:11)
  • They argue with Jesus’ disciples (9:14)
  • They seek to arrest and kill him (11:18; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1)
  • They (as Bible experts) say that the Messiah is the son of David (12:35)
  • They mock Jesus on the cross (15:31)

The ‘scribes’ are not always pictured negatively in Mark. In 12:34 Jesus declares that this particular scribe ‘is ‘not far from the kingdom of God.’ Jesus agrees with their interpretation that Elijah must come first (9:11-13). Perhaps like the arguing scribes in 9:14, Jesus is critical of his disciples’ inability to cast out a demon. Note that ‘scribes’ have been mentioned three previous times in chapter 12: vv. 28, 32, 35.

“…who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, 39 seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets.” What is wrong with these desires and/or actions? As I mentioned above, it rather describes a part of my life – at least in outward appearance. It is interesting that Jesus does not address these comments to the scribes, but to the crowd (v. 37b).

Perhaps, taken in the context with the previous week’s gospel about the greatest commandments, Mark may be pointing out that they are not loving others as themselves, they are just concerned about themselves, and that they are lording it over others, rather than, even as David did, putting themselves under the Lord and above everyone else. It is not the actions per se that Jesus criticizes, but their desire [thelo] to do such things (v. 38m “like”). It is really their inward desires and wants that are the issue.

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