“But he said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? For David himself says in the Book of Psalms,
And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and 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.”
Devotionals get repetitive during Advent: we tend to hear the same stories and same lessons over and over. One of the big themes of the season, is that we are waiting for something but get something entirely unexpected. We expect a king but get a little baby; a conqueror but get a savior dying on a cross. Jesus upends our expectations when he comes as a prophet, particularly by who he condemns.
Jesus-as-prophet poses questions with a sting, rather than just answering them, and he cleverly calls out hypocritical greed rather than simply lovingly accepting oppression.
The scribes, academics and lawyers of their day, had been trying to trap Jesus throughout this chapter in Luke and undercut his authority. So Jesus turns the tables on them, asking: “David thus calls him [the Christ] Lord, so how is he his son?”
This is what happens when your math teacher is sick of your clowning, so asks you to explain the Pythagorean theorem to the class.
And it works – Jesus shuts the scribes down. They don’t have an answer for him, which lets Jesus keep teaching rather than deal with their harassing.
Jesus’ question is designed to deal with their harassment, not to shame folks who don’t know better. He doesn’t disdain dialog but does publicly humiliate those who simply seek to undermine his authority.
He isn’t satisfied to shame the scribes in passing but goes on to directly attack them by warning the disciples about them while everyone else listens. We don’t tend to think of this, the dark side of the Magnificat, but Jesus attacks showy religious observance combined with gross lack of compassion for the poor here and throughout the gospels.
The people he was condemning weren’t just ignoring the poor – they were attacking them. One minute, they pile up prayers, the next they “devour widows’ houses.” Their prayers don’t show themselves in their works of mercy but are directly contradicted by their actions.
This is where I develop a self-righteous head of steam and turn eloquent about Jesus as a prophet who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Except I can’t read this story except as a demand to ask hard questions about my life:
Do I ask questions to avoid my responsibility to follow and to question Jesus & Scriptures authority in my life or out of a sincere desire to learn and grow? Am I just the jerk in the back of class who wants to avoid learning anything?
Do my actions reflect a comfortable agreeability with the status quo (whatever that may be in my social setting) rather than a desire to strive for justice in my city and holiness in my life? Do I satisfy myself with a veneer of justice and righteousness and not care for the real matters of the law?
Jesus never ends in that condemnation and shame. He accepts the Pharisees which come to him (as he does with Nicodemus) and gives them space to change their lives. His death is powerful enough even for his enemies and his forgiveness extends to them. Still, condemnation is part of this story –Jesus did this and we need to think it through in our own lives. We have to examine ourselves and work towards his holiness.
I’m going to be praying with the Puritans through Advent for contrition and God’s grace:
O Changeless God,
Under the conviction of thy Spirit, I learn that
the more I do, the worse I am
the more I know, the less I know,
the more holiness I have, the more sinful I am,
the more I love, the more there is to love.
O wretched man that I am!
I have a wild heart,
and cannot stand before thee;
I am like a bird before a man.
How little I love thy truth and ways!
I neglect prayer,
by thinking I have prayed enough and earnestly,
by knowing thou hast saved my soul.
Of all hypocrites, grant that I may not be
an evangelical hypocrite,
who sins more safely because grace abounds,
who tells his lusts that Christ’s blood cleanseth them,
who reasons that God cannot cast them into hell, for he is saved,
who loves evangelical preaching, churches, Christians but lives unholily.
My mind is a bucket without a bottom,
with no spiritual understanding,
no desire for the Lord’s Day,
ever learning but never reaching the truth,
always at the gospel-well but never holding water.
My conscience is without conviction or contrition, with nothing to repent of.
My will is without power of decision or resolution.
My heart is without affection and full of leaks.
My memory has no retention,
so I forget easily the lessons learned,
and thy truths seep away.
Give me a broken heart that yet carries home the water of grace.
(Valley of Vision, “Paradoxes,” 128-129)