What does true devotion look like? In Mark 12:39-44, when Jesus contrasted the ostentatious religious life of the scribes with the humble gift of an anonymous widow, He turned human evaluation upside down. Alistair Begg reminds us that devotion to God is not measured by outward appearances, but by sacrifice.
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Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel of Mark and chapter 12, and we read the section that concludes the chapter, beginning with verse 38:
“And in his teaching he”—that is, Jesus—“said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have 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.’
“And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”
Father, help us, we pray, by the Holy Spirit to understand what we read and then to respond accordingly to what we discover—to respond appropriately to what we discover. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, we’re at the end of this series of instructions here in Mark chapter 12. Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and you will notice, if your Bible is open at this certain page, that he is about to leave the temple at the beginning of chapter 13, and he is now on his way to meet his opponents and to face suffering and to face death. And he concludes his teaching here in the temple by issuing a warning and by commending the actions of this anonymous lady. Luke tells us that Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, although there is a large crowd that is present. And essentially he is saying to them, “I want you to beware of this danger, and I want you to be aware of this devotion.”
Jesus, as we’ve seen, has been consistently turning human evaluations upside down. The principles of his kingdom run counter to the way in which people were thinking, not only in his day, but certainly they run counter to the way in which people are thinking in our day. And so, for example, Jesus has said, “If you want to save your life, you should lose it,” and vice versa. People don’t usually think that way. He said to his followers, “Greatness is not about having servants; it is about being a servant,” and he pointed out that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” So it’s entirely in keeping with that kind of emphasis that the lead-in to the Passover events and to the crucifixion of Jesus should be the record of the devotion of two anonymous ladies: the story that is recorded here at the end of chapter 12 and then the story that is recorded at the beginning of chapter 14. In both cases, you have an unnamed lady who is expressing her devotion for God.
So what I want to do is to gather our thoughts around two imperatives. Now, if you write these in your notes, you’ll have to be careful; it will appear, if you are not careful, that you’ve written the same word twice. The first imperative is “Beware,” and the second imperative is “Be aware.” “Be aware.” So it’s just the distinction of a vowel, but it’s a very important distinction.
First of all, then, he says, “Beware.” Someone says, “Well, where did you get that from?” And then you look down at the text, as I’ve suggested you should, and you say, “Well, that wasn’t particularly brilliant. It’s right there.” Well, of course it is; that’s the way it’s supposed to be. When the pastor is finished, you’re supposed to say, “Well, that makes perfect sense.” You’re not supposed to say, “I don’t know where he got all of that.” When you find yourself saying, “I don’t know where he got all of that,” he probably pulled it out of a hat, and if he pulled it out of the hat, he probably put it in before he pulled it out. So you don’t want that. You’re not here to see a magician. You’re here to study the Bible: “And in his teaching, he said, ‘Beware.’” “Beware of the scribes.” The scribes.
Now, the scribes were not liberal in their theology. In fact, they were very conservative in their theology. In terms of devotion to the text of the Bible, to the Old Testament, it would be legitimate for us to describe them as fundamentalists. They were the fundamentalists of their day. And as a result of their knowledge of the Old Testament, they exercised considerable influence in the community. And, of course, we know that to whom much is given, much will be required. And so Jesus points out that these individuals have a significant problem—actually, they have a number of them.
The crowds don’t particularly like their preaching. We know that from reading the Gospels, because they often find themselves saying, after Jesus has taught them, “Boy, that was really good, and I understood that, and there seemed to be a power and a dynamic about it,” in contrast to the way in which the scribes had been teaching them. It wasn’t that they were unorthodox; they were very orthodox. They were also probably pretty dull. But that’s not what Jesus is referring to. He’s referring not to their preaching but to their practice. Because these individuals, instead of being marked by humility and by generosity and by sincerity, were, Jesus says, preoccupied with themselves. These individuals are marked out as being selfishly ambitious. And if you want to cross-reference this, at your leisure you can read the opening verses of Matthew chapter 23, where Matthew gives a fuller statement concerning the way in which Jesus calls these people to account for these things.
Here in Mark we have described for us three ugly characteristics. Three ugly characteristics. First of all, pride. Pride: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces.” He’s pointing out that these individuals are ostentatious. This is not simply a comment on their style of dress, but it is a comment on the fact that they dressed in a particular way, wearing the kind of robes that you would never try and climb up a ladder and do your gutters in—wearing the kind of robes that would make people say, “Now there is a significant robe, and therefore a significant person.” Instead of the colored and multicolored robes that were worn by the ebb and flow of humanity, the scribes wore the white robes that had tassels that surrounded them on the base as they moved around, and presumably it was something of significance for them when they were able to get everything moving and flouncing and bouncing. They were ostentatious. And they loved the deference that came with it, so that in the marketplace it was just the bee’s knees for them when people said, “Oh, my, my, there is Mr. Scribe So-and-So,” and “Hello, hello, scribe.” And that was just… that just floated their boat. That got them going.
When they went into worship, they operated on the same basis. That’s what it tells us: and they liked to have “the best seats in the synagogues.” The best seat in the synagogue was the seat that was in front of the container in which was deposited the Torah, the Law of God. That seat did not face in the same direction as the congregation, but that seat looked out upon the congregation, so that the individual, then, could sit in a position of prominence and not only survey the others who had attended but also, of course, be surveyed by the others who attended. And so, that, once again, fed their pride.
When they went to feasts—the equivalent of wedding receptions—they never had to go and look at the board that was out in the vestibule that had all the table numbers on it. Why would they waste their time looking to see what table number they had? They knew what table number they had. They had the top table! They were scribes. They wore the right clothes. They were referred to deferentially in the market. They had the position of prominence in the synagogue. So why wouldn’t they also be just in the very best seat at the feast? Jesus says, “That’s exactly the way they operate.” Beware pride.
Secondly, greed. Greed. They “devour widows’ houses.” Now, what does that mean? Well, apparently, they eat houses. There’s a little lesson here for those who like to say, “Now, I take the Bible very literally!” Okay. So what do you do with “they devour houses”? I hope you know what you mean when you say that. To take the Bible literally is to take it in the context of its use of language and symbolism and metaphor and imagery. So if our children said to us, “Oh, Daddy, do these people eat houses?” We would have to say, “No, honey, that is not a literal picture; that is a metaphorical picture. What it means is that they’re greedy. They’re greedy people. And folks who have things, they like to get things from them. And they particularly do it with widows, who perhaps are now vulnerable as a result of the loss of their spouse”—and I suppose it could equally be said that it would be true of a widower. In fact, I’ve seen widowers more vulnerable than I’ve seen many widows. Most of us men are completely at sea without our wives; I think our wives do better. But it is not unusual for the woman who perhaps has not been the mastermind behind the financial responsibilities to be on the receiving end of the designs—the dirty designs—of these kind of characters.
You see, the scribes were not allowed to be paid for being scribes; they had to have a trade. So they had the remuneration as a result of working with their hands. But what they could do was suggest to people that if they would be nice to them—the scribe, the rabbi—“If you are nice to me, you’ll get a real blessing—because, after all, do you know who I am? And if you give to me, then I’ll be able to pray for you.”
That’s where the third ugly characteristic comes in: hypocrisy. Hypocrisy. Because what they were doing was preying on the widows and then trying to cover it up by praying for the widows. Don’t you love the English language? That’s just a vowel again. One vowel changes everything! They were preying on them, and then they tried to cover it up by praying for them: “I’ll say a long prayer for you. I will remember you in my prayers.” They had all the language down. But what they were actually doing was seeking to feather their own nest, to line their own pockets, to advance their own agenda—and, in everything, ostentatious to a tee.
Well, we dare not miss the warning. We dare not miss the warning—a warning that extends to all conservative, Bible-teaching rabbis, pastors, leaders: “Beware. Beware these three ugly characteristics: pride, greed, hypocrisy.” The warning is very relevant to all who are tempted to believe that the call to the ministry of the Word of God is a call to prominence, it’s a call to deference, it’s a call to ill-gotten gain. The fact that it has become so for some does never excuse it. And I wonder, as you look at this chilling final sentence of this first little scenario—as you look at that final sentence, I wonder, does James not have it in mind when he writes? Look at what Jesus says: “Here I say to you, beware of these characters, beware of this.” Because, you see, you become like the people with whom you spend time. “They will receive the greater condemnation.” There are degrees of rewards in heaven, and there are degrees of punishment in hell. I think James must have had this in mind, or something like it, when he writes in the third chapter of his letter, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Beware.
Now, as we come to the second imperative, you will notice that Mark tells us that Jesus “sat down”: “And he sat down opposite the treasury.” I actually wrote a little thing parenthetically in my notes; I wrote, “And so he might!” Do you get that? “And Jesus sat down.” And so he should! He’s been on his feet for a long time. He’s been faced with all of these questions, all of these attempts to trap him and upturn his authenticity, and so he sits down. And he sits down, we’re told, “opposite the treasury,” and he “watched the people putting money into the offering box.” This is kinda like at the mall; it’s the equivalent of the mall, really. He just said to himself, “I’m just gonna go sit down and watch people for a while.” There he sits. But, you know, a teacher has to teach. A teacher has to teach. And you will notice that immediately his observation becomes the basis for his instruction. Because as he observes the scene, he realizes, “This is very important, and I’m gonna have to make this clear to my disciples.” And we’re gonna see that he calls them to him, and then he teaches them.
Now, what is the scene? Well, historians tell us that in this context, in the temple precincts, there were thirteen offering boxes. They were designated for different needs and opportunities so you could give to certain things. The entryway into the offering box was by way of a metal trumpet, and they were referred to as “the trumpets.” And because the entryway was metal, it was relatively possible to deduce what people were giving by the sound that their offering made when it was tinkling through the trumpet. Because people were not writing checks, they were not giving online, and they were not using paper currency, because there was no paper currency. So the only way in which they were able to do this was to bring their offering and to let it make its way down through the metal trumpet and into the chest, so that the sound of the coins gave some indication of the extent of a person’s contribution.
And Mark tells us that Jesus noted that “many rich people”—you will see in the text—that “many rich people put in large sums.” Well, there’s nothing bad with that, is there? There’s everything good about that. There’s no sense in which Jesus is saying, “And we don’t like rich people putting in large sums.” He’s not suggesting for a moment that that would be wrong to do or that it is inconsequential. It wasn’t inconsequential, and it certainly isn’t inconsequential. What is he doing, then? He is doing what he’s been doing throughout his instruction—namely, challenging human valuation. Challenging the way in which a person thinks about what he sees or what she sees. Because the common assumption, sitting where Jesus sits and observing what Jesus sees, would be that the contribution that has now been made by this poor widow, if it is not entirely irrelevant, it must certainly be inconsequential. Because from a human perspective, the substantial things have been done by the people who have substantial capacity. It is the rich people who’ve made the big noise in the trumpet. This lady—her tiny, little thin coins, the lepton—have virtually… haven’t even made a noise going down!
So Jesus says, “Fellows, come here. Huddle up, it’s a teaching moment again.” He brings ’em in, brings ’em in, and then he says, “Truly, I say to you…” If you’re a King James person, this is, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee…” In Greek it is, “Amen, amen.” So they knew this is important, what Jesus is about to say: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box[es].”
I love how Jesus does this, don’t you? Does he do this with a twinkle in his eye? I mean, this is another riddle, isn’t it? The Twelve are not the brightest bunch, but nevertheless, they should be able to get this. But he very quickly just jumps in and answers it for them. I don’t think he wants to waste the time to wait for them to try and figure it out, all looking at one another and scratching their wooden heads. Because clearly, two cents is not worth more than two hundred dollars, is it? You couldn’t bring one of your children and say, “Look, two cents is worth more than a hundred dollars,” or “Two cents is worth more than two thousand dollars.” It isn’t! So how can a lady who puts in the equivalent of two cents be putting in more than people who are making a substantial contribution? That’s the question. That’s the riddle.
Well, the answer is clear. He’s teaching them that the rich gave what they would never miss, while this poor widow gave what she couldn’t afford. Isn’t that it? Essentially, what the rich were doing was giving their loose change. This lady was giving all her change. The rich were able to go into their riches, depending on the extent of their riches, and, without actually touching their principal, take some of their interest, and out of their interest make a generous contribution that made a big noise, sufficient for people to say, “My, my, that is quite a contribution!” But this lady—who could have said to herself, “Well, I’ve only got two of these; I’ll keep one for a loaf”—puts in both!
Now, if I was teaching this to children, I would then turn now—because this is the way my mind works, being a simple soul—but as I sat at my desk, I said, “This is the fable of the pig and the chicken!” Do you know the fable of the pig and the chicken? If you do, you’re a much brighter group than the first service. They all stared at me like cows looking over a wall—or donkeys looking over a fence. It was something equally wonderful.
But the fable of the pig and the chicken, you remember, is, the pig and the chicken decide they’re going to go into business together. The chicken says, “Why don’t we go into business?” The pig says, “What kind of business?” The chicken says, “The bacon and egg business.” See, you are quite clever, after all. It’s just a timing thing; I just have to wait. And we tell our grandchildren that the pig said, “Not so fast. For you, that would be a contribution; for me, it’s a sacrifice.” That’s the point that Jesus is making: “Hey fellas, did you see what happened here? Did you see this poor widow? Look at what she did.”
One of my good friends summarized this for me in such a way that I decided his summary was so good that I shouldn’t waste my time trying to summarize it. So here is his observation—his summary of what is actually taking place and the challenge that is represented for us as we seek to apply it.
Number one, our giving—our giving—is to be measured by proportion and not by addition. By proportion and not by addition. The real question, you see, is not how much is given but how much is left.
Secondly, our giving is measured not by amount but by sacrifice. Not by amount but by sacrifice. By any standards, the amount that was given by the widow was just so vastly different from what others were able to do that it would appear to be completely irrelevant. But not so!
And our giving is always in the sight of the Lord Jesus. Jesus sat down at the temple treasury, and he watched as the people came and put in their gifts. There’s no sense of manipulation for us in recognizing the fact that God searches our hearts and he knows us. He knows our portfolio. He knows our bank balance. He knows what we have. We may impress other people by the extent of whatever it is we choose to do, but there’s no way we could really impress God. I mean, God has given us everything before we could give it back to him. It’s like giving your children money to buy you a Christmas present. You give ’em a hundred bucks, they go out and buy everybody a Christmas present; then you go, “Oh, thank you! That’s lovely.” Well, you gave them the money in the first place. That’s what it is when we give to God. He’s not sitting waiting, says, “Oh, goodness, if I don’t get some money in here soon, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” He owns everything.
Now, you see, the lady went to the mantle shelf and took down her little tin that had her grocery money in it, or whatever it was. She had to make it to Friday. She said, “I’ll trust God.” Calvin, in his day, just puts it in the same way: he reminded his congregation that it is of less value in the sight of God when a rich person out of a vast resource gives a moderate sum than when a poor person by giving very little should exhaust their bank account.
Well, there we have it. We come to the end of chapter 12, two concluding imperatives: “Beware!”—beware of pride, beware of greed, beware of hypocrisy—and “Be aware!”—be aware of the accountancy of heaven. After all, when we think about someone who put in everything he had or everything she had, are we not face-to-face with the story of the gospel—that God has put in everything? “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for [our sakes] he became poor, so that [we through] his poverty might become rich.”
Let’s just pause for a moment and respond to God in our hearts, in relationship to the challenge of these two imperatives this morning. Just a moment of silent prayer. Don’t be distracted as our musicians return. Just tell God what you’re prepared to do about this. And let’s ask God to forgive us our greed and our hypocrisy and our selfish ambition. Let’s make sure that we’re not looking over our shoulder or around us, trying to monitor everybody else’s existence, but that we are taking seriously the demands and the commands of God. As ridiculous as it sounds, let’s make sure that we are facing the challenge that the pig faced rather than just simply skirting around it with the contribution of the chicken. I wonder, have I ever—have I ever—have I ever really sacrificed in order to give to God? And really, what could I give him anyway?
Father, look upon us in your mercy. Help us as we conclude our time together now, as we think by means of this song and as we respond by means of it, so that your purposes will be set forward as a result of the responsiveness of your people. For we pray in the name of your Son. Amen.
 See Luke 20:45.
 Mark 8:35 (paraphrased).
 Mark 9:35 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 12:48.
 James 3:1 (ESV).
 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
 2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.