June 2, 2019

Devotion to God: The Fake and the True

Jason Meyer | Mark 12:38-44

And in his teaching he 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.”—Mark 12:38–44


Remember the pattern of three we saw last time: three attempts to trap Jesus and then three counterattacks from Jesus. It is clear that the scribes are the target of his offensive: (1) Jesus questions not the accuracy, but the adequacy of what the scribes say about the Messiah. He is not only David’s Son, but also David’s Lord (Mark 12:35–37). Then we have two pictures to compare and contrast: (2) the scribe as a symbol of fake or counterfeit devotion to God (Mark 12:38–40), and (3) the poor widow as a symbol of true devotion to God (Mark 12:41–44). 

Today we are going to unpack the two pictures of devotion to God—the counterfeit version first and the genuine second. 


  1. Fake Devotion (Mark 12:38–40)
  2. Genuine Devotion (Mark 12:41–44)

1) Fake Devotion: The Scribes (vv. 38–40)

And in his teaching he 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.”

This profile of the scribes has several features. First, Jesus informs how we should look at them (namely, look out for them). Second, Jesus tells us what we should see in terms of (a) what they do and who they hurt, (b) what they want, (c) what they love. Third, Jesus tells us where it all ends for them.

First, notice how Jesus begins and ends his offensive on the scribes. Jesus calls us to beware of them (not just look at them, but when you look at them—look out! Beware of them. Be warned about them. Don’t emulate them. They are a cautionary tale.

Second, we get a profile of a scribe. Notice that Jesus gives a sketch not only of a scribe’s behavior, but what his heart treasures or loves. We do what we do because we want what we want because we love what we love.

These categories all get melded together in the composite character profile that follows. They like (1) walking around in long robes (they have a “dress for success” mentality; their distinctive dress draws attention to themselves), (2) greetings in the marketplace (they desire to be noticed and acknowledged as important; they crave attention), (3) the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at feasts (religious celebrity, recognition of importance, self-importance), (4) to devour widows’ homes, (5) to make long prayers as performance and pretense.

Their prayers are just like their clothes—showy and designed to draw attention to themselves; long robes and long prayers—elegant robes and eloquent prayers. I love what one commentator says: Jesus’ authority was seen in his teaching; the authority of the scribes was seen in their clothing. Everything that they do flows from “a pride that hungers for honors and distinction and arrogance that flaunts its learning and position.”[1]

They turn things like prayers into performance, as a pointer to themselves. In other words, it only looks like they are pursuing God’s presence—they are really pursuing the applause of man. They are acting; they are putting on a show; they are hollow displays of religious devotion, but in reality they are devoted to self-importance, applause, congratulations.

Something has replaced God as the center of concern and attention: the praise of people. Everything they do is calculated to draw the attention of others. They are presented and loving that attention and living on it.

But it is not simply that they are like spiritual peacocks—they are also predators. They are not only audacious, but they are abusive because, Jesus says that they devour widows’ houses (v. 40). This reference to devouring widows’ houses is somewhat uncertain. The two most common options would be to take it literally or figuratively. How would they literally devour the homes of widows? It could be that they were exploiting the estate of widows for whom they had been appointed guardians.[2]

Figurative would mean much the same as our phrase “to eat someone out of house and home.” It would mean that they abused the generosity and hospitality of poor and vulnerable widows. They took advantage of their kindness and preyed upon it.

“The scribes lived primarily on subsidies, since it was forbidden that they should be paid for exercising their profession. … The extension of hospitality to them was strongly encouraged as an act of piety; it was considered particularly meritorious to relieve a scribe of concern for his livelihood. Many well-to-do persons placed their financial resources at the disposal of scribes, and it was inevitable that there should be abuses.”[3]

TB Soṭah 22b (Baraitha) speaks of scribes whose zeal was directed toward the things of this world and not to those of the age to come; Assumption of Moses 7:6 describes the scribes as “gluttons”; and Josephus, Ant. XVII. ii. 4 says that the Pharisees (and most scribes were Pharisees) made men believe they were highly favored by God and women were deceived by them. Cf. J. Jeremias, op. cit., pp. 113 f.[4]

Third, Jesus wants us to see the end of the road for them so that we will not be swept up in their condemnation. “They will receive the greater condemnation” (v. 40). The grave warning here is that people are easily fooled, but God is nobody’s fool. God sees right through their religious and self-righteous showmanship. He is not dazzled by spiritual peacocks, but he is repulsed—the way we are by poisonous snakes or dung beetles or by a putrefying, decaying, dead man’s body in an open tomb.

They exploit the poor and dishonor God with their showy, sham prayers. One commentator said it in a particularly striking way: “The vulnerability of widows is a recurrent theme in biblical literature, so that to defraud them is particularly despicable.”[5] God is the widow’s defender and he will bring judgment upon those who prey upon them (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18, 24:17, 27:19; Psalms 68:5, 146:9; Isaiah 1:23, 10:1–4; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3, 49:11; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5).[6]

You better believe Isaiah has something to say about that (Isaiah 10:1–3) …

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
     and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice
     and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
     and that they may make the fatherless their prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
     in the ruin that will come from afar?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth?

Imagine the offense: They are using God to get praise from people, and they are like parasites feeding on the people of God. It would be like a pastor going to the hospital to make a pastoral visit and pretending to care about the person that was sick or needing surgery, but all the while the focus was on the attention they were receiving as a caring person (taking selfies, playing up how many hospital visits they make).

What would a pure hospital visit look like? If all your attention was on the person who was sick—if you were there because you actually cared about the person. 

Or what if someone were preaching—pretending to get your focus on the Lord—only to draw the attention to the herald and not the Heralded. Becoming the point rather than the pointer! Nothing scares me more. There is no desire in preaching I have to put to death more than that one—it is sick and insidious and sinister and putrid! O the evil of pride! 

What would it look like if someone’s attention was only on God? What would a worshipful heart, with full trust and love set upon the Lord, really look like?

2) Genuine Devotion: A Poor Widow (vv. 41–44)

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.”

Now the scene shifts. Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and now he sat down opposite the treasury and people were putting money in the offering box. We see impressive displays that draw attention to the size of the sum given as rich people put in large amounts (v. 41). But then comes a stark contrast. In verse 42: A poor widow came and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. 

The “treasury” appears to have been located in the court of women and appears to have consisted of 13 trumpet-shaped receptacles for both the temple tax and money given voluntarily for various purposes.[7]

Don’t miss the fact that this story will continue to highlight what is wrong with the temple as “a den of robbers.” It is being run by people who are showy and devour the homes of the vulnerable—like the poor widow we have before us in the story.

The “two very small copper coins” were two lepta (the Greek text). The lepton was the smallest coin in circulation in Palestine and was worth 1/64 of a denarius, a day’s wages for a common laborer. It was not in circulation in the western part of the Roman Empire, where Mark apparently wrote. Therefore he explained that two lepta had the same value as a kodrantēs, the Greek transliteration of the Latin quadrans, which was a coin familiar to his readers/hearers. [8]

This is an example where appearances can be deceiving. Man looks at the outward appearance and can be duped into drawing the wrong conclusion or be dazzled by the wrong things.

Jesus is like a spiritual optometrist and helps them see things as God sees them. He calls the disciples to him and says to them something that would shatter their perception: The poor widow put more in the offering box than anyone else (v. 43). Jesus then gives the rationale to support his claim (“For”). Don’t merely look at the amount given—look at the amount left to live upon. In other words, the large sums were not sacrificial in the sense that it put any pinch on a wealthy person’s lifestyle or called for greater levels of trust in the Lord. They were left with an abundance. Their offering it did not make a dent on their budget. The rich are still rich after their large sums are given. The poor woman is even poorer than before, which means the dependent woman is even more dependent upon the Lord than before.

There can be no illusion of independence for her. Even though the amount she contributed was small in comparison, what she had left to live on was the greatest contrast. If extravagance is put on a sacrificial scale, she put all the rest to shame by giving all and leaving herself to rely completely on the Lord (“all she had to live on”). How was she going to make it? She had to rely on the Lord, not on money. The Lord was her hope and trust and security and treasure, not financial security and hope and treasure. 

Main point: Real Christianity is feeding on God by faith. Fake Christianity is using God to feed on others. 

Look at the contrast between the greed of the scribes and the generosity of the widow: The contrast between the showiness of the scribes and the hiddenness of the widow. This fascinating pictorial contrast puts flesh on the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 6:1–4.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

I love how one commentator brings together Matthew 6 and Mark 12. “Jesus disregards the wealthy donors who throw in large sums that are probably announced by the loud clang they make in the trumpet bell. … The resounding of the trumpet when the rich toss in their silver dwarfs the tinkling of the widow’s two coins. But her sacrificial devotion eclipses their perfunctory donations. The rich give from their abundance, but they do not sacrifice their abundance.”[9]

No fanfare. No trumpets. Just faith—a heart that is sold out to the Lord. He sees me. He knows. That is all I need. She was giving out of an overflow of worship and trust and thankfulness for the Lord’s care. She gave as an expression of praise, not as a strategy to get praise. They gave to be seen; she gave because she was convinced she was seen and known and loved. She gave because of what she had (i.e., God’s care); they gave because of what they lacked (a cavernous craving for the applause of people).

Conclusion: Identity in Christ

Are you using God to get what you treasure or is God your treasure? Are you pretending with God or pursuing God? Are you operating with the illusion of independence? Our closing song says it well:

My worth is not in what I own
Not in the strength of flesh and bone …
Not in skill or name …
[Not in] wealth or might …
Or in human wisdom’s fleeting light.

  • Not in how athletic you are
  • Not in how much you know.
  • Not in how good you look.
  • Not in how much you make.
  • Not in how many people follow you.

We must come to grips with the fact that we all do what we do because we want what we want because we love what we love. We are boasters, worshipers, treasure-ers. We are defined by what we treasure, what we love, what we boast in.

The church should not be full of self-righteous hypocrites. It should not be full of people who are full of themselves. It should be full of those filled up with the fullness of God. The church should be full—full of Christ! Full of his followers who boast in him, point to him, rejoice in him. We boast in knowing Christ!

We boast in knowing the strength of Christ—power to save. For my life he bled and died. Justice has been satisfied. Every sin nailed to the cross. I bear it no more. Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more! Power to throw every demon and rival dominion in hell forever. Power to make the world and power to sustain the world. The One who was and is and is to come. His kingdom can never be overthrown, his reign can never end and will never end.

The wisdom and skill of Christ—he made all things, sustains all things— everything made by him and for him.

The riches of Christ—not how much you give, but how much he gave. You know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ: Though he was rich, for our sake became poor so that in his poverty we might become rich.

That is what we remember—what we celebrate—our hope—our treasure—our joy—what we truly have—what we truly cannot lose—all because of the accomplishment of Christ.

[1] Garland, D.E. (1996). Mark (p. 479). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Strauss, M.L. (2014). Mark. (C. E. Arnold, Ed.) (p. 557). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Lane, W.L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark (p. 441). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[4] Lane, W.L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[5] France, R. T. (2002). The Gospel of Mark: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 491). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.

[6] Strauss, M.L. (2014). Mark. (C.E. Arnold, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7] Brooks, J.A. (1991). Mark (Vol. 23, p. 203). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[8] Brooks, J.A. (1991). Mark (Vol. 23, p. 203). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[9] Garland, D.E. (1996). Mark (p. 481). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Sermon Discussion Questions


  1. Fake Devotion (Mark 12:38–40)
  2. Genuine Devotion (Mark 12:41–44)

Main Point: Real Christianity is feeding on God by faith. Fake Christianity is using God to feed on others.

Discussion Questions

  • What does Jesus tell us we need to see about the scribes?
  • How did the scribes devour widows’ houses?
  • What does Jesus want us to see in the contrast between the scribes and the poor widow?
  • What does it mean to feed on God by faith as opposed to feeding on others like a parasite?

Application Questions

  • In what ways are you tempted to feed on other people to gain your identity?
  • What steps can you take to be more rooted and grounded in your identity in Christ?

Prayer Focus
Pray for a grace to feed on God in Christ by faith and to strengthen your identity in Christ.

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