Faith Over Pretense
Passage: Luke 20:45–21:4
Faith Over Pretense
In 1944, C.S. Lewis gave an address at King’s College in London entitled “The Inner Ring.” That title illustrates Lewis’ aim. Speaking to a class of new graduates, Lewis warned that most careers and callings consist of an outer ring and an inner ring. The outer ring is where you start, and it’s the place where you often feel small and overlooked. The inner ring, by contrast, is the place for the elites, the place you aspire to reach so that you will be noticed as important in your field. And Lewis said the desire for this inner ring was a nearly universal pull in life – “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods…one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”
Now, Lewis gave this address in the mid-20th century, but in a way, he anticipated today’s world. The drive for the Inner Ring is another way of saying we crave notoriety. We revere celebrity. We are often content to cultivate the appearance of something rather than its actual presence. All of those things are manifestations of Lewis’ Inner Ring – this desire to be in, to be noticed, to be Somebody rather than Nobody. And that’s all through our culture, isn’t it? We can quickly come up with examples. We think of social media and its toxic power of self-promotion. Or, we think of those celebrities who have no commendable achievements but are rather famous for being famous. Our culture thrives on and profits from the pull of the Inner Ring. Lewis was prophetic in that regard.
But friends, the sad reality is that the pull of the Inner Ring is not confined to the culture. It shows up in the church too, in surprising ways. You may have seen the Instagram account called Preachers-n-Sneakers. Have you heard of this? It chronicles the extravagant wardrobes of so-called celebrity pastors. And you might think, “Yep, that’s the Inner Ring all right. That’s celebrity culture gone wrong in the church.” True, but the problem goes deeper. The guy who started the Preachers-n-Sneakers – guess what he has now? A book deal, and a website that sells Preachers-n-Sneakers merch. Do you see it? We’re drawn to people who appear to be “in.” We follow them. We crave notoriety, even in the church.
The point I’m trying to make is this. Lewis’ Inner Ring is simply a restatement of the prophet Jeremiah’s words from long ago. Jeremiah 17.9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Deep in our nature, hard-wired from the fall, is the desire to elevate our own importance, so that other people are impressed with the kind of person we appear to be. And with that comes the corresponding desire, also hard-wired from the fall, to denigrate people or things we deem small. Lewis’ Inner Ring is echoing Jeremiah, and they’re both telling us something about ourselves, about human nature.
What’s the remedy to such a situation? How do we break the pull of the Inner Ring? How do we stand guard against the deceitfulness of our own hearts that loves to elevate me over you? Well, friends, that’s where we turn this morning in Luke’s Gospel. There is a powerful simplicity to today’s text that speaks precisely to our human situation. As you heard in our reading, the passage is built around a clear contrast. On the one hand, Jesus addresses the scribes, who were part of the Jewish religious establishment. These guys were the definition of the Inner Ring, and they knew it. In fact, they flaunted it everywhere they went. But on the other hand, Jesus highlights a poor widow. She is very much not on the Inner Ring. She’s an outsider, on the lowest rung of society. The widow is almost unnoticeable, while everything the scribes do is for the purpose of being noticed. In the world’s eyes, then, it’s clear who you should want to be like. And yet, Jesus’ entire point is that the world’s eyesight is wrong. The scribes appear in, but in reality, they’re out. It’s the widow, the one you almost didn’t see – she’s the one who stands to enter God’s kingdom. She’s the one you should emulate.
And that is the value of this passage, brothers and sisters. With a clear and powerful contrast, Jesus cuts to heart of human nature, and with an incisive warning, Jesus calls us to lay down the pursuit of the Inner Ring and live for the simplicity of following him. You see, it’s a final object lesson before the events of the passion begin. In a sense, the widow is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship. And that means there is much for us to learn this morning from her example.
So, in terms of an outline, we’re going to keep it simple this morning. There are two examples in this passage, one negative and one positive. And that means we will have two points – one a warning, and the other an exhortation. So, let’s consider each one in turn.
Beware Spiritual Self-Promotion
We begin with the scribes in vv45-47, and the warning is this: Beware Spiritual Self-Promotion. Right from the start, it is clear that Jesus intends to warn his disciples. There is no ambiguity here, v45 – “And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, ‘Beware the scribes.’” Friends, think of a security guard standing watch at the gate of a military base. That guard has to live with a constant state of watchfulness. He can’t let his guard down, no matter how quiet things appear at the moment. And that’s the sense of the warning from Jesus. He warns disciples against the scribes’ entire approach to life. Notice how immediately following the warning, Jesus begins to describe the scribes’ way of life. He describes their attire, their attitude, their relationship to others, and even their spiritual practice. The point, then, is clear – don’t live like these men. Don’t follow their example.
But let’s press a little deeper. What exactly makes the scribes’ way of life so dangerous? Why is their example worthy of such a stark warning from Jesus? Well, when you look at the description, what you find is a way of life that is spiritually deadly. Everything about the scribes’ way of life is aimed at spiritual self-promotion. It starts with a consistent desire to be first. Pick it up with me in v46, where Jesus describes the scribes’ public persona – “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.”
Long robes signified that these men were not laborers. They’re not blue collar. These were the so-called important people who could afford to wear such impractical clothing on a daily basis. What’s more, their social life furthered that conclusion. If there was a social event, the scribes were front and center. You had to address them with the correct title, and you had to seat them in the right place, which was up front.
So, from their wardrobe to their social life, the scribes have one goal – to be first. In fact, the prefix for first appears twice in the original of v46. The best seats and the places of honor – both of those expressions have the prefix for first. And that’s the scribes’ goal, friends. Their deep desire is to be first, with everyone else second.
Now, ask yourself, brothers and sisters, “What has Jesus taught us about the nature of his kingdom? What does discipleship demand, according to Jesus?” Luke 14.11 – “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” And Luke 13.30 – “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” That’s why Jesus warns his disciples – because the scribes’ way of life leads to only one place – outside the kingdom of God.
Still, the reason for Jesus’ warning continues. V47 – the scribes not only desire to be first, but they also use their authority to serve themselves. “Beware of the scribes,” Jesus says, “who devour widows’ houses.” In the first-century, widows were among the most vulnerable members of the community, especially older widows. They often relied on the religious leaders, like the scribes, to properly settle their estates and establish the means of their long-term care. And that means the scribes had considerable sway in the lives of these widows.
But what do these scribes do, according to Jesus? They devour widows’ houses. I could try to give you a sense of the original here, but you don’t need any help on this one. Devour. It’s such a violent, exhaustive word. Like ravenous wolves, the scribes scarf down the livelihood of these vulnerable members of the community. Like pirates, they plunder those whom they should care for. Friends, this is near the essence of wickedness. To mistreat another person made in the image of God is always a sinful act. But when that imager-bearer is weak and you are strong, that is wickedness of the highest order. And that’s why Jesus warns his disciples. The scribes use their position to serve themselves, even at the expense of others.
It all comes to climax in the final piece of Jesus’ description. This is the end of the warning, v47. The scribes turn piety into pretense. They are hypocrites. V47 – “Beware the scribes who…for pretense make long prayers.” If there is any religious act that demands humility, then prayer is at the top of the list. Prayer is nothing less than approaching the presence of Almighty God. It is petitioning the Creator, the One who made you and sustains your life. Of all things, prayer ought to promote humility.
But how do the scribes pray? For pretense. It’s all for show! Their focus is not humbling themselves before God. Their focus is exalting themselves in the eyes of others. This most humble of acts becomes a platform for self-promotion.
And we shouldn’t be surprised at this, friends, though we should certainly be saddened. We shouldn’t be surprised. The elements of v47 go together. If you are willing to take advantage of the weak, then almost certainly your piety – your religious devotion – is devoid of life. You can’t devour another person and then engage in humble prayer before God. The human heart doesn’t work that way. We can’t separate our lives into these neat columns, where one area has no bearing on another. If you devour another person, rest assured you are not praying to God in way that honors him.
When we put these things together, we can see very clearly why Jesus would warn his disciples. The scribes desire to be first, which is the opposite of kingdom discipleship. The scribes use their position to serve themselves, which is the opposite of the ministry Jesus exemplifies. And the scribes turn their piety into pretense, revealing how bankrupt their hearts are before God. These are not people to emulate. These are men to avoid, and so, Jesus warns his disciples.
What is the result of this way of life? Jesus tells us, and this, you could say, applies the warning. The end of v47 – “They will receive the greater condemnation.” Friends, the word greater means more severe, and condemnation refers to a verdict handed down by a judge. That means the final judgment is in view – the last day, when all humanity will stand before the Living God, and Christ himself will serve as Judge. And on that day, Jesus says, the scribes will receive the more severe judgment. More severe relative to whom? Jesus doesn’t tell us, but that shouldn’t lessen the effect. When you live like the scribes, the outcome is not exaltation and glory. The outcome is judgment, condemnation. Just as Jesus said to his disciples, those who are first will be last, and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.
Brothers and Sisters, how should we respond to this warning from Jesus? This is no joke, as you can tell. Jesus plainly intends to warn his followers so, how should we respond? Well, to begin with, we ought to affirm that this warning applies to us. The fact that Jesus issues the warning indicates that the capacity for this kind of spiritual self-promotion resides in all of us. If this issue were confined to the scribes, then Jesus wouldn’t need to warn us. He could just describe it, and we could merely observe them like specimens in a laboratory. But Jesus doesn’t merely describe; he warns, and that means he’s talking to us. As we said at the outset, the capacity for spiritual self-promotion is part of our fallen human nature. We love to exalt ourselves.
And so, there is a kind of humble self-apprehension that ought to mark the Christian life. Now, I want to be clear. I don’t mean that we need to think horribly about ourselves or engage in endless self-loathing. That doesn’t honor the Lord. I also don’t mean that we never acknowledge the means of grace God has given to each of us – from our various spiritual gifts to the unique ways we may be able to serve the body of Christ. When I say humble self-apprehension, I mean simply that we recognize our natural tendency to exalt ourselves. We ought to take seriously that this kind of spiritual self-promotion would be our natural pursuit, if left to ourselves. Apart from the Spirit’s sanctifying work, this is where our tendencies would take us.
And that, in turn, ought to lead us to a regular practice of self-reflection. Why am I doing what I am doing? Am I seeking God’s approval, or the approval of others? How am I using the position God has given me – to serve others, particularly those who are weak, or to serve myself? Is the spiritual devotion I display in public the same as what I display in private? Or, to use the image of this passage, do my prayers in public match my prayers in private? This warning applies to us, brothers and sisters, or else Jesus wouldn’t have given it.
Secondly, we ought to regularly humble ourselves under God’s Word. The scribes, as you may know, were entrusted with the teaching of God’s Law. They studied the Scriptures for their job, in order to instruct the people how to live. These were the Bible-men, in other words. And yet, these students of Scripture were remarkably hard-hearted toward others. They were comfortably content to mock God with their hypocritical religion. From this, friends, I take away this sobering realization: There is a way of approaching Scripture that makes a game out of God’s Word. There is a way to study the Bible that misses the point. And therefore, we ought to be on our knees every day that we would not end up in such a place. We ought to regularly pray for the Spirit to keep our hearts soft to God’s Word, to keep our attitudes humble before Scripture. What a terrible place to be, when the Bible becomes little more than a prop in your performance of spirituality.
So, this is my exhortation to us, brothers and sisters. Pray every day for a humble heart that submits to the Word of God. I cannot overstate how massively significant this is for the spiritual health of not only your life, but also for the life of the church. Of all the warnings the scribes give us, this is perhaps the most important – beware toying around with Scripture. That is a sure sign of spiritual self-promotion.
Pursue the Humble Simplicity of Faith
So far, we’ve just thought about the negative side of this passage – things we ought to avoid. What is the positive side of the text? What are the things we ought to pursue? That’s where we turn next, as Jesus shifts his attention from the scribes to the poor widow. She is the counterexample that provides the commendable picture of discipleship. From vv1-4 in ch21, we hear this exhortation: Pursue the Humble Simplicity of Faith.
The note of humility begins right away. Listen again to vv1-2, and catch the very quiet action of the widow. V1 – “Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.” Now, the reason Luke notes that Jesus saw this woman’s offering is because most people would not have seen it. That’s not because the woman is hiding. It’s because the sizable offerings of the rich would overshadow her. Luke doesn’t tell us how much the rich are putting in, but that is because the size of the offering is not actually the point of this scene. Jesus is not making a point about how much or how little one gives. Jesus is preparing to make a point about faith.
Jesus does this by commending the widow. Look again at v3 – “And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.’” Within the context of the passage, the widow is clearly the counterexample to the scribes. They practiced their religion for show, but the widow’s offering is different. That’s why Jesus says she has put in more than all the others. It’s because her offering is an overflow of the heart.
Still, Jesus’ commendation requires some explanation, doesn’t it? The widow’s offering is small. It’s about 1/8th of a penny, so Jesus can’t be speaking in monetary terms at this point. Compared to others, the widow’s offering has little monetary value. What, then, is Jesus’ point?
Notice v4, where Jesus explains why the widow’s offering was more than the others. V4 – “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Now, let’s be clear again on something. Jesus is not denigrating those who gave more. He’s not saying that larger gifts are somehow less honoring to God. He’s not saying that those give out of their material abundance are not acting out of devotion to God. Again, the point is not the amount of the offering.
Rather, Jesus’ point is that the widow’s offering reveals the source of her confidence. The rich give out of their abundance, so even when they give a large amount, they have a large amount remaining. The widow, on the other hand, gives all that she has to live on. The only place she has left to turn is to God. She must depend upon the Lord, for she has given away her last earthly source of security. That’s why her offering is more than the others – because her offering reveals that her faith rests solely upon God. By putting in those two small coins, the widow is saying, “God, you are all I have left. My hope is only in you. My faith rests solely on you. And I trust you will sustain me.”
In that sense, friends, think of how different the widow is from the scribes. The scribes are all about earthly appearances. Their piety is for pretense. They can’t fathom losing their standing in life, which is why they walk around in robes and demand people’s attention. But the widow is different. In a way, she loses her life – she gives away all she has – and in doing so, she finds her life in God. What’s more, the widow does this quietly, without fanfare. She doesn’t make a grand announcement that she is giving away all she has to live on. She doesn’t posture and preen so that people notice her piety. Instead, she just quietly worships God. She humbly trusts him. And if no one sees, then the widow doesn’t care. She’s not acting for show. She’s acting in faith. You see, the widow embodies discipleship, according to the kingdom, where the last are first and the humble are exalted.
Brothers and Sisters, I said earlier that the widow is essentially the culmination of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship, and I’ll repeat that here. She is the final embodiment of what it looks like to follow the Lord. You entrust yourself entirely to him. You place your confidence solely in him. And you do so humbly. That’s the point I want to emphasize this morning, brothers and sisters. Many of you, like me, probably sense the smallness of your Christian life. Most days, it may seem like you are just going through the motions of another day, and the idea of making an impact for the kingdom of God seems as distant from your life as Mars is from earth. You’re just trying to hang on. You’re scratching for faith in a world full of people whose lives seem a lot more important to God than yours does.
If that’s how your days appear, friends, then I would call your attention to the widow here in ch21. Here is a life devoted to the things of God, and essentially, no one sees. No one notices. And still, she acts with a heart of faith. She gives what she can, and she trusts that God is honored. That’s how God is calling you and me and to live, brothers and sisters – simply, humbly, even quietly, doing what God has called us to do, and doing it out of a heart that trusts him completely.
If I could impress upon you one truth this morning, it would be that the inner ring of God’s kingdom is not populated with significant people who did incredible things. It’s populated with humble widows who gave two small copper coins. It’s populated with everyday Christians who walk by faith, entrusting themselves to the Lord wholeheartedly and humbly. So, wherever you are, with whatever resources you have – give all that you can to the Lord, trusting that he is honored not by the amount you give or by the extent of what you accomplish. He’s honored by faith. Give all that you can because that’s how God is glorified – when humble people depend solely upon him.
Of course, you may be wondering, “But I still don’t know what to do tomorrow! I want to live like this, but when I wake up tomorrow and life smacks me between the eyes, what do I do then?” My answer is not flashy, friends. Do whatever it is that God gives you to do that day, and do it with all your might, to the glory of God. That’s the humble simplicity of faith. It doesn’t wait around for something more important to serve God. Humble faith serves him right now, in whatever he’s given you to do.
You know, I said a moment ago that no one saw the widow’s offering, but that’s not entirely accurate. Jesus saw her, didn’t he? Jesus noticed her act of faith. Jesus saw that she gave everything, that she relied solely upon God. And that’s the final encouragement of this passage, brothers and sisters. For the Christian, no act of faith, no matter how small, goes unnoticed. No ministry for the Lord, no matter how miniscule it might seem to the world, escapes Jesus’ eye. As the Lord of all the earth, Christ sees all, and on the final day, he will reward each of his disciples by saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And no Inner Ring, friends, no matter how exclusive, can compare to that reward. Amen, let’s pray together.