Televangelist scandals have routinely made headlines for the past forty years or so. Many of these scandals have been sexual in nature, with preachers getting caught with prostitutes or found guilty of other kinds of sexual immorality. Other scandals, however, have been financial in nature. One televangelist who pledged to pray for those who donated to his ministry was found to have thrown the prayer request cards immediately into the trash after receiving the funds, never praying as he promised. Other televangelists have encouraged people to give money that they do not really have, to take out loans or lines of credit, promising people that if they go into debt “for the Lord,” God will make them millionaires.
Sadly, hucksters often use religion as a pretense for their own-financial gain. We are not talking here about hardworking and godly pastors and leaders who are paid well by their churches or other organizations. Instead, we refer to the hypocrites who see religion as a way to make a quick dollar and who intentionally prey on unsuspecting people, taking advantage of them for their money. This phenomenon, we read in today’s passage, is nothing new. In Jesus’ day, many of the scribes were guilty of devouring “widows’ houses.”
The scribes were highly respected in the first century, and many of them took advantage of that respect to enrich themselves. They would turn to widows in financial distress and make them promises that could not be kept if they would just give them their money. Some people who were not scribes themselves dressed up as scribes and convinced wealthy widows to give them large sums for the temple. Those false scribes then took the money and ran away with it.
Jesus had harsh words for such unscrupulous characters, but He also condemned the scribal class for hypocritical behavior that was not financial in nature. Their religion was all too often mere show. Long prayers were offered and long robes were worn in an attempt to prove their piety. However, ostentatious displays of religiosity were covers for hearts that sought honor for themselves, not for the Lord (Mark 12:38–40).
Truly, impenitent hypocrisy is one of those sins that mark us out as fools. When we pretend that we are more godly than we actually are, we might trick others, but we never mislead God. We must guard our hearts lest outward piety become a vehicle for hiding self-advancement.