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TEXT: Luke 20:45-47
SUBJECT: Luke #80: Beware the Scribes!
Thirty years ago, Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan was nominated for the Senate from New York. At his victory party, he read a telegram from the Republican candidate, James Buckley. Buckley congratulated the Professor, challenged the Professor to a debate, and promised a fair campaign against the Professor.
"Professor, Professor, Professor-cried Moynihan-"the mudslinging has already begun!"
Americans have never put much stock in learning. Our heroes are the wealthy, the strong, and the beautiful. Thus people like Bill Gates, Kobe Bryant, and Brittney Spears are far better known than our leading thinkers. Who are the top scholars of today? What men are on the cutting edge in medicine or history or physics or theology? We know the most popular authors, but who are the good writers? Who are the poets? What painters are turning out original work nowadays? We don't know. Because we don't value learning (except as a way to make money).
The culture our Lord grew up in was far removed from our own. It prized learning-especially learning the Word of God. The publicans were the richest men in Israel, but their money bought them no respect. It was learning that counted! Jewish parents did not pray their sons to grow up to be businessmen, but to be scholars. They had no higher hope for their daughters than they would grow up to marry scholars and have sons who excelled in learning.
To this day, the Orthodox Jewish picture of heaven is not a resort; it's a library. Their little boys still collect Rabbi cards the way I collected baseball cards. It was a culture steeped in the Word and with a strong commitment to learning.
Which makes today's story so shocking.
The scribes are the most educated men in Israel. What other men wished they were, the scribes really were. They were men who mastered the Hebrew language, who pored over their Bibles day and night, who committed much of it to memory, and who could quote, compare, and analyze the leading thinkers of the past.
The scribes had a noble heritage. The first scribes served David and Solomon; Daniel was a scribe as were the young men who went into the fiery furnace. The most important scribe was Ezra, whose great learning and moral leadership kept the nation together in the dark days right after the exile.
In an age when books were scarce and most people could not read, it was the scribes who kept the Word of God alive in the hearts of His people. What a gift the scribes might have been-if their holiness had matched their learning.
But it didn't.
The scribes were conceited men. The honor men gave them went to their heads. The Lord names five examples of their pride:
"They walk in long robes".
The robes were long because the borders were wide. The borders were sewn on in obedience to the Law of God. According to Numbers 15 and other places, the distinctive clothing would remind the people that they were a distinctive nation-a holy people in covenant with God. The scribes wore extra large borders so that everyone would notice their extra large holiness!
"They love greetings in the marketplace".
There's nothing wrong with saying Good morning to people you pass by or wanting them to say Good morning to you. But these were not the greetings the scribes were looking for!
They wanted honors heaped on them everywhere they went: Rabbi, Dear Rabbi, Teacher, Master, Father, Doctor, Your Reverence, Your Grace and so on. William Barclay tells the story of two scribes who came home bewildered because someone dared to greet them with the insulting words "May your peace be great". Instead of the customary, "May your peace be great-- my Masters!"
"They love the best seats in the synagogues".
Synagogues were laid out pretty much like our church building. The people sat on one level, with a raised platform in front, where the Word of God would be opened, read, and preached. But, unlike our church, there were chairs on the platform facing the congregation. And only the most distinguished men could sit in there.
And those were the chairs the scribes lived for! To be above the People of God-that's what they wanted from the bottom of their black hearts!
"They love the best places at feasts".
To have a high place in the synagogue was not enough for the scribes. They demanded top-billing wherever they were. If they went to a wedding, they must sit next to the bride and groom. If they go to a dinner party, their seat has to be alongside the man who's giving it. At the celebration of Passover, Pentecost, or Purim, they had to be front-and-center.
"They make long prayers".
These are public prayers, of course. Many were prayed in the Temple-at the hour of prayer-when there were plenty of men to hear them. Some of the scribes were so "holy", however, that they couldn't make it all the way to the Temple. So full of love were they for God and His people (especially the poor widows and helpless orphans), that they had to stop at street corners and call out to God for an hour or two.
REASONS OR EXCUSES
If you asked a scribe why he demanded special treatment, he wouldn't say, "Because I'm a proud hypocrite!" He had his reasons, and had he been sincere, you might have excused him. Or maybe even agreed with him.
Why should the scribe have all the privileges? And not the doctor or the plumber or the housewife? He would say that he deserves them because what he does is more important than what others do. If the doctor heals the body, he cures the soul; if the plumber gets rid of your waste, he gets rid of your sins; if the housewife serves one man, he serves a nation. There is some truth in what he says, isn't there?
But he's more likely to give another answer: He wants to be honored so that young men will admire him and follow him in the study of God's Law.
Let's face it: the desire for glory is a strong incentive. If multi-million dollar contracts get some boys to play basketball ten hours a day, maybe respect and prestige will get other boys to read the Bible ten hours a day!
As for praying for hours in public, in this too, he had a social conscience, wanting to encourage others to do it and letting the unfortunate know that at least one man cared for their souls.
But Jesus Christ is not taken in by their craft. He knows they're phony men because-while seeking the name of holiness and wisdom-they were, at the same time, cheating little old ladies in the Name of God!
Their holiness was all in their heads. Their studies made them scholars, but not saints. The years poring over the Word did not make the scribes honest or kind or patient or content or generous or humble or anything else God wanted them to be.
The scribes thought they had God's favor because of their great knowledge of His Word. In fact, all they had was His extra strict judgment.
"These will receive greater condemnation".
Because the scribes knew more than other men, they were more responsible than others. If publicans and pagans are punished for their crooked and cruel ways, how much more the scribes who know better?
"To whom much is given, much will be required.But the servant who knew his master's will, but did not do it, he will be beaten with many stripes".
MINOR MESSAGE #1
This means we must beware of taking pride in our knowledge. No one here is half as learned as the scribes were, but in myself and others I have heard more pride than I care to admit. We congratulate ourselves on what we know and look down on other believers who know less than we do.
This is the spirit of the scribes-not dead with them-but alive in us! Does the Lord praise them for it? Does He overlook their pride and contempt? Does He pass them off as small things? No He doesn't-not in them and not in us!
If we know anything at all, let's thank God for it and be scared to death of basking in our knowledge instead of living up to it.
To keep this warning in mind, just remember that the warning was not given to the scribes, but to the Lord's disciples. The spirit that lived in Judaism would try to revive itself in the life of the Church. Diotrephes was mastered by it and evidently damned by it. But even better men would be touched by it: think James and John and the others who jockeyed for position in the Kingdom of God. While in the presence of the King who "Made Himself of no reputation".
We can learn from the scribes-learn how not to be and what not to do!
MINOR MESSAGE #2
It also means character matters in teachers. If you read I Timothy 3, you'll find pastors are to have nineteen different traits, and only one of them has anything to do with teaching! The others are all about his character. Does he chase women? Is he a good father? Does he drink too much? Character matters in a teacher. Do you know why? I think there are two reasons:
Bad character will seep into his teaching. It's hard for a gossiping preacher to preach on gossip! And so, he won't. It will also grieve the Spirit on whom every preacher depends for insight and delivery.
Bad character will discredit good teaching. It will make his every word ring false-even his true words will sound phony coming from him.
Does good character make false doctrine true? No. Does bad character make true doctrine false? No. Character isn't everything, but it is something.
Christian preachers who are like the scribes back then should be ignored, even if they're very smart and popular. For their evil ways may well affect you more than their good words.
But as important as these are, they're s not the message of today's story. The story is not about the scribes, but about the Man who exposed them.
THE MAJOR MESSAGE
What does the story tell us about Jesus Christ?
It tells us that He's the bravest of men. To denounce the publicans and harlots would have been easy to do. They were weak and defenseless; their own guilt and shame worked against them. But the Lord did not pick on them. It was the powerful He singled out for criticism-the men who could strike back--and would! The men He embarrassed that day would humiliate Him a few days later by nailing Him to the cross.
He knew all this-and still He did it! Let us admire the great courage of our Lord. Let us be thankful for it. And by His grace, let us become brave disciples.
Let us speak the risky words, words that need to be spoken, but aren't for fear of what will happen if we do.
If the Lord would stare down the men who were willing and able to kill Him, let's not be afraid of the people who intimidate us into a guilty silence.
Courage is not hate. The Man who lambastes the scribes in Chapter 20 cried for them in Chapter 19. Courage is not recklessness. He did not pick at their every little flaw or charge them with crimes they were not guilty of. Courage is not pride, for the Man who scalds them here dies for them a few days later.
Oh, that God would give us this balance! To be able to speak hard words softly! To correct without fear, but also without pride, and with hearts full of love! This is what we need.
But it doesn't come naturally! It comes by grace. So pray for godly courage and find out what it is by meditating on the life and character of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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