While all the people were listening, He said to His disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who want to go around in long robes and who love greetings in the marketplaces, the front seats in the synagogues, and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and say long prayers just for show. These will receive greater punishment.”
Jesus emphasizes on many occasions the danger of a hypocritical life. He calls it out, often referring to the pristine outside that is corrupted by the filthy heart. His concern was always for a person’s heart, their motives, more than their so-called ‘spiritual accomplishments’. Here, it seems, He takes it to a new level. Not only does He speak of the depth of evil that owns those who act religious on the outside but are deteriorating on the inside, He even infers that these will receive a ‘greater punishment’. I am not a theological scholar so I will avoid any deep, theological debates on religious minutiae regarding what these levels of punishment might be. It simply strikes me profoundly at this level: there is a deep danger for those ‘spiritual authorities’ who are ‘looking good on the outside’ while taking advantage of the helpless and playing church for show. This deep danger is evidenced by Lord Jesus saying that they will be punished even more severely. The ‘normal’ punishment of Father God is not enough in this instance. Those who are trying to look religious and yet are living like infidels will pay dearly in the end. Whatever it is they think they are gaining now as a result of such a practice; i. e., wealth, power, influence, prestige, etc., absolutely will not be worth it whenever they stand in judgment before Father God. Nothing on this earth, nothing, is worth even the ‘regular’ punishment of God not to mention the ‘greater punishment’.
For the serious follower of Christ this is a frightening thought. It moves us to examine our heart, our motives and our actions. Do we love to look all churchy and pious? Are we deeply motivated by what others think of our spiritual success? Are we seeking to draw public attention to our work for the Lord? Do we live for the love of being recognized at church and church functions? Are we exploiting the weak and helpless maybe even through neglect of such? Are we prolonging our prayers simply so others will see us as ‘super godly’? The danger is to look at others with an eye to identify these ‘nasty hypocrites’. Christ calls us to examine our own hearts lest we become those whom we are seeking to condemn. The danger with this hypocritical nature is that it is built on self-deception and the one who is characterized by it gradually, insidiously, moves farther and farther away from being able to recognize it in themselves. I believe Jesus warns us of these hypocrites not so that we can condemn them. He warns us so that we don’t become them! It is easier than we think, especially as we mature, to fall into this very dangerous mindset and lifestyle.
We must remain honest with ourselves and willing to allow Father God to search our own hearts. We must be those who are humbly pursuing holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit while we also seek to bless the forsaken of our culture. James made it clear, ‘Pure and undefiled religion is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unspotted from the world’. This is our two pronged call which is firmly grounded in the motives of our heart and only possible when we are committing ourselves to the Truth that Jesus brings. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Our only hope is in Him.