The Wrong Kind of Religion


This past week the interwebs were filled with stories about the recent statistics from the Pew Research Forum that points out that fewer Americans are going to Church.  I am not sure how expensive this survey was, but I certainly could have told them that.  I am less interested in the numbers of people who do not go to church and more interested in those who chose to come.  I do not think that those who decided not to go are bad people, but why would I focus on people who do not want to come when I have those do right in front of me?

It has been said that Christians are well known for what we are against rather than what we believe.  We are looked upon as pompous, hypocritical, stuck in the last century, judgmental, wanting to force people by law to do what we cannot get them to do from the pulpit. We are out of touch with what is happening in the world.  Just yesterday there was a story about the so-called “war on Christmas” because Starbucks has red cups with no writing on them.  I am no fan of Starbucks, I am die hard Dunkin Doughnuts guy, but I could care less what some retail outlet does with their cups!  Come on people there are some honest to God battles needing to be fought here and a red cup is not one of them!

So we turn our attention to the twelfth chapter of Mark’s Gospel starting with the thirty-eighth verse where we read some pretty strong words of Jesus concerning the religious leaders of his.

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus is speaking of the particular group known as the Scribes.  They liked to walk around in long flowing robes.  A long robe that swept the ground was a symbol of notability or someone special.  I think it would always be dirty and make one looked unkempt, but I digress.  The robes were designed so that the wearer was not able to hurry or to work, and was a sign of the leisured man of honor.  At all events, they liked to dress in this way so that it drew attention to themselves and the honor they enjoyed.  They like greetings in the marketplace; they loved to be greeted with honor and respect. The very title of Rabbi means “My great one.” To be addressed as such was very agreeable to them.

They liked the front seats in the synagogue as this had the advantage that everyone would see them. They loved the high places at feasts and places of prominence in other settings.  In other words, they wanted to be the center of attention wherever they went.

“They devoured widows’ houses.”  This was a savage charge. An expert in the law was not supposed to take any payment for their teachings. They were expected to have a trade that their daily living was earned. But these legal experts had managed to convince the people that there was no higher duty or privilege than to support a rabbi in comfort, in fact, it was believed that such support would win them favor from God. It is a sad fact of history that women have always been the victims of religious charlatans, and it would seem here that the scribes imposed on people who could ill afford to support them.

There are three things in this passage that Jesus warns against.  I think these words are as necessary today as they were when Jesus spoke them. I always like to remember that the only harsh words Jesus ever had for anyone were directed at the religious leaders.  We do not lead by setting ourselves up over the people that God has entrusted to us.

  1. Jesus warns against the desire for prominence. There are many who will accept and office, even campaign for an office in the church because they think they have earned it rather than because of a desire to serve others. Jesus told us that he came to serve not to be served.  If we wish to lead in the church, we have to become servants of those we hope to lead.
  2. Jesus warns against the desire for deference. Almost everyone likes to be treated with respect. However, the very fundamental fact about Christianity is that it should drive us to obliterate the self rather than exalt it. The person who enters into an office or position for the respect that will be given to them has begun in the wrong way, and cannot, unless they change, ever be in any sense the servant of Christ and his followers.
  3. Jesus warns against the attempt to make a traffic of religion. It is still possible to use religion and religious connections for self-gain and self-advancement. But this is a warning to all who are in the church for what they can get out of it rather than what they can put into it.

There are many reasons why people leave a church or never come to a church, and I mentioned a few at the start of this essay.  However, I think that we as a church, and we as church leaders, need to take a long hard look at our behavior and our priorities.  Rather than blame others and blame the world we need to look deep inside our institutions and see if we are in fact still relevant to the world around us.  Jesus was a great reformer and came at a time when the church needed reform, as this passage clearly sets forth.  Other reformers followed and exacted change on an institution that existed only for its survival.  We had three great awakenings in our country’s history that called people back to the basic of faith, and we need one now more than ever.

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