Beware the Scribes

Beware the Scribes

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

“Beware the scribes, who like to walk about wearing stoles of authority and love to be greeted deferentially in the market place, to sit in the seats of prestige in synagogues, and the seats of honor at banquets.” — Mark 12:38-39 (paraphrase)

The scribes in question here are not the top-drawer lawyers from the big city, Jerusalem, but the village officials who taught in the synagogues and recorded the business of life, writing deeds of ownership and trust, marriage licenses and birth certificates. In a largely illiterate community they were even more important than their counterparts are in our society. Jesus was a threat to their power and influence and they regarded him as a dangerous nuisance. This is another piece of evidence for the critical stance of Jesus towards his own society and a contribution to the causality of his death. He made himself such a critical nuisance that all the powerful classes in principle and some in fact wished he would disappear; those acting in fact eventually made it happen.

The climax of his criticism of them is that they “eat up the houses of widows and make long prayers (40).” Briefly this means that they use their religious authority to steal money from defenseless people like widows. Like any decent person Jesus opposed dishonest lawyers and clergy who defrauded the vulnerable. How would we describe this situation in our time? Jesus is against lawyers who manipulate and overcharge their vulnerable clients and clergy who use religion to extract money from believers. We have so many instances in our time of this breech of trust that the phenomenon has become a cliché.

We might go on to allow that not all lawyers are untrustworthy and not all clergy are greedy hypocrites, but does Jesus make that allowance? In this text it does not seem so. He indicts the lawyer/clergy group as a whole; the profession is corrupt, so beware of them all! If there is an honest one among them he is the exception not the rule, so ‘Beware, beware!’

So when one says, as I have been heard to say, “All politicians are liars,” one is not far from Jesus. After all here he is saying, “All scribes are thieves whose purpose is to deceive everyone so as to rob old women and shine in the markets and in the synagogues and at the fashionable dinners.” According to Jesus, Bernie Madoff is only an extreme instance of the norm, which is a norm of dishonesty and hypocrisy. “Beware the Scribes!”

At this point I can hear the usual criticism of such a reading, that it is too pessimistic. We cannot believe and will not accept the realistic view of a Jesus, about the classes in society. ‘Not all politicians are liars, not all lawyers are corrupt, and not all clergy are venal’, we cry. What shall we say to this? ‘Oh Jesus you are too pessimistic! I know some honest politicians, some trustworthy lawyers, and some conscientious clergy. Not everyone falls under your indictment.’

Let me ask you, ‘Do you really know that your honest politician is in fact honest?’ My bet is that she is mostly honest (but the odds are only about 51/49%), that your clergy are mostly conscientious but not entirely, and as a class all such professionals are subject to the systemic corruption of social groups. So Jesus warns us to beware in general, but we cannot stop with that warning, we must go further.

Jesus is sitting watching people throw their contributions into the Temple collection baskets. He sees a poor widow give of her poverty and he remarks to his disciple that she has in principle given her very life, and that that is more meritorious than large sums from the rich. Why does Mark tell this story right after the warning about how the scribes eat up widows’ houses? I think it is because here the widow gives her life freely while there it is stolen from her. The point of the story seems to be freedom; the gift to God is best when it is freely given, not stolen or coerced. Clergy who wheedle money out of old ladies damage not only their piety but hers also.

Another point: What might one say about writers – for that is what scribes are – whose role is to create “world” for us? This “written world” is, I believe, the only world there is – as virtual communications makes plainer every day – and it is the very same world whether the story is about adventure and heartbreak or about property and divorce. All the “worlds” in which we live are filtered through the dishonesty of the scribes and are therefore more or less phony. (It was J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield who gave our time the term “phony.” Could it be that the reason Salinger has been in seclusion for decades is precisely because he takes his discovery seriously? Why fraternize with the phonies?).

When Jesus says, “Beware of the Scribes!” he means something like this: The world is more and less phony, but mostly phony. That’s not pessimism, that’s a fact. So don’t trust the backslappers in the market place or the leaders in the churches or the high table at prestigious dinners. Everyone is out for himself alone, including you and me! Nevertheless, says Jesus, “God my Father loves this phony world so much that he sent me to tell you the truth and then to do the truth for you (John 3:16). I am the only one you can trust! And when you trust me you will begin to discover the many trustworthy sinners my grace make possible and puts at your disposal. Trust me first, and then all you need will follow.”