Jesus isn’t messing around today. Beware! the lectionary text begins. The NIV translates this as watch out! Be careful! Keep your eyes open.
As he 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! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
While Jesus spends much of his time rebuking the “wealthiest 1%”, in this passage, Jesus isn’t talking to them. As Jesus comes to the end of his ministry (and the Lectionary comes to the end of Ordinary Time), he speaks directly to his people.
You won’t just always have the poor with you, Jesus says. You’ll also always have the rich.
Not just the financially rich, but the flashy, the performatively religious, the ones who spend more time trying to to get at the “right” party than how to get their boots on the ground helping the poor. There are always going to be people who don’t help the marginalized unless they bring a camera crew with them. These people don’t go away, even though the signifiers of significance shift with time and culture.
Watch out! Beware the ones who like to show off!
Beware what? Beware being taken advantage of? Beware because they’ll hurt us? All of those are good warnings that we should all listen to.
But Jesus is also telling us to beware of becoming them.
Jesus know that one day, this scrappy religious movement is going to become institutionalized, and if we don’t watch out, we’ll choose being seen as good over being good. We’ll choose being seen as charitable over giving charity. We’ll choose being seen as just over doing justice.
Watch out, because the temptations that Henri Nouwen names – to be relevant, to be popular, and to be powerful – won’t ever, ever go away.¹
The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.” – Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus
The rewards of performative religion are high. The rewards of secret work are often as secret at the work itself.
Jesus and His Secrets
Mark is the gospel of secrecy. Scholars talk about the “Messianic Secret” in the text, the author’s obsession with Jesus’ secretive healing and cryptic preaching. All the Gospels, though, present a Jesus who is cagey about what is seen and performed. “Pray in a closet,” Jesus says in Matthew. “And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Join me, for a minute, in imagining a totally human Jesus who, Hebrews reminds us, was tempted in every way that we are (4:15).²
Jesus felt the temptation to performance, too.
Jesus’ “beware!” comes from his own knowledge of his so-human heart.
I think that Jesus is invested in secrecy because he knows from experience that there is a fine line between doing something that is seen, and doing something to be seen.
Jesus’ ministry was, perhaps, one long, concerted effort to avoid a performative religion that gains the kingdoms of the world at the expense of the people on the edges of the world.
Satan wouldn’t have tempted Jesus with the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus didn’t want them.
Jesus’ warning words in Mark 12 hit me differently when I imagine him standing in the desert with the tempter, saying no again and again to the temptation of the spectacular.Imagine that Jesus. He’s dirty and dusty and hungry and overtired, trying to find courage to reject things that he desperately wants.
Then listen one more time to his warning near the end of his ministry.
“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!
They devour widows’ houses
and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
Maybe at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was scared of how much he would have liked to be greeted with respect in marketplaces, of how much he would have liked the places of honor at banquets.
Maybe he structured his ministry around the secret places – running away to the desert, hiding away to pray, telling those he healed not to tell anyone about him – to protect himself from the glittery kingdoms that he saw in his sleepless desert nights.
At this moment we encounter Jesus in Mark 12, he’s resisted the temptation of parties of influencers, and attended gatherings of people with no social leverage. He’s resisted the temptation to launch himself into the upper edges of society, and has moved downward to the outcasts and the awkward and the unclean. He’s resisted the temptation to have the best seat at the synagogue, and been chased out of synagogues with death threats. He’s sat through long nights with pretentious philosophers, long days hauling tax collectors out of trees, afternoons in the hot sun with sexual outcasts, and sparring with powerful people who would have elevated his status if only he would have bowed down that day in the desert.
What a gasp of relief Jesus must have breathed at the end of his ministry.
I wonder if he heard his Father’s voice in his soul saying well done, good and faithful servant.
And as he wraps up his work with the people, he looks around at his blessed, foolish, beloved disciples, and whispers from the deepest place of his so-human soul –
“Beware, loves. Watch out.
“Be careful. Be so, so careful.
“I know how careful you have to be, because I had to be that careful, too.”
Don’t ever risk the solid, rich work in front of you in order to get something that only last a half a breath before it dissolves like cotton candy on your tongue.
There is good work in the hidden places where the Gospel is unfolding slowly, almost imperceptibly, and secretly. The people who give up the glittery work of showing off for the gritty work of showing up are bringing in God’s shalom.
Hang in there, you blessed and beloved hidden workers for the Kingdom. Your faithfulness matters. Christ is with you, and has been there and done that, and always goes on ahead of you.
- Henri Nouwen’s small book In the Name of Jesus is perhaps the most formative book I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it for anyone involved in ministry.
- I prayed through this passage with the Jesuits’ imaginative prayer that I talk about here, an approach that emphasizes intimacy and imagination. It’s a beautiful practice that I highly recommend.