“As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!”
This is how our Gospel reading this week opens. In some of the unfortunate parts of the Church’s history, statements like this have lead to antisemitic interpretations of Jesus’ life and ministry. I just want to be clear: Jesus did not hate Jews. Jesus was Jewish. But Jesus was anti-showboating. The Scribes to which Jesus refers this week were actually very well respected members of their communities. While many people may have had some ability read in Jesus’ day due to the high emphasis on scriptures, almost no one knew how to write, and the ability to correctly transmit the written word of God, God’s self-revelation to the people of Israel, was a big deal. Scribes were important: they knew the Law, they could rewrite the scriptures in an acceptable way, they were devout to God. Jesus does not call them out for these amazing and important skills.
I think in modern times, separated from the context in which the Gospels were written, we forget that much of what Jesus has to say in the Gospels was not directly recorded as he was speaking. It was remembered by the community and spread by word of mouth, and much of what was written down to allow us in later generations to hear Jesus’ teaching and interpretation of the Law and Prophets as Jesus speaking not to them, but to us.
So if we look as Jesus speaking to us, then he is not warning folks about the Scribes for being Scribes or being Jewish or anything else. His warning is about showboating. How many of us are guilty of strutting about in extra fancy clothes to be noticed? How many of us like to be greeted by other important people? How many of us try to get the best seats at the banquet (or basketball game) merely to show off? If we’re honest, the answer is all of us.
If we hear Jesus’ words as only applicable to the people running around 2,000 years ago, or only applicable to others, we’ve missed the point. When Jesus questions the motives of the Scribes and Pharisees, if we don’t hear a voice in our head saying, “Do I do that?” we have again, missed the point.
Isaiah 40 has the image of every mountain being brought low and every valley being raised up. We are all mountains. We are all valleys. We all have places where we can be humbled; we all have places where we can be raised up. And thanks be to God that we have the voice of the Beloved One to call us down when we get too high, and to raise us up when we are too low.