Mark 12:38-40 – 3 Desires of Bad Religious Leaders

There are three desires that bad religious leaders have: attention, position and possessions. We need to beware of people who have an inordinate desire of these things. Let’s beware and also behold Jesus Christ – the ultimate religious leader.

Imagine that it’s your birthday and for the entire month leading up to it, all those closest to you have been getting ready to celebrate. They’ve been decorating for a month. They’ve gone to the grocery store, bought supplies, found recipes and made plans. And now that it’s your birthday and everyone’s gathered together for you. But there’s one problem: they’re all ignoring you. You come out of your room and thank everyone for coming, but they’re so busy celebrating that they don’t pay any attention to you.

If this was your birthday, it would probably be really hurtful to you. Let’s not do that same thing to Jesus. Let’s not get wrapped up in all the traditions and festivities of Christmas, but forget to pay any attention to Jesus Himself. The best way we Christians can celebrate Christmas is to pay attention to Jesus – to listen to His teaching and live by what He says.

With this in mind, let’s go over Mark 12:38-40. And as we do, we’ll see three things that bad religious leaders desire and what it means for us.

Desire #1: Attention

And in his teaching [Jesus] said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces …”

 v. 38

The scribes were the religious experts in the Old Testament Law. They hand-copied it, memorized it, taught it, wrote about it, settled disputes about it. They were sort of like seminary professors and Bible commentary writers. Beyond that, though, they functioned as lawyers and governing leaders. So why would Jesus tell us to beware of them?

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First off, Jesus says that the scribes “like to walk around in long robes.” Scribes would wear certain robes when they did their work. They were special robes for only top-tier, elite people. But there were two problems with the way the scribes related to their robes:

  1. They liked to walk around in their robes.
    The scribes loved to walk around in their robes and be seen in them. That’s what they desired.
  2. They liked to walk around in their robes. 
    This indicates that they didn’t just wear these robes when they were doing their scribal work. Perhaps they even walked around town in them to have people give them attention and “greetings in the marketplaces.”

The scribes liked getting attention – not honoring God and serving people.

Desire #2: Position

“Beware of the scribes, who … have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts …”

– vv. 38-39

Seating was a really clear social status symbol in this culture. In the synagogue, the most important people would sit higher than everyone else and up in front. Similarly, at feasts there were places of honor. And the scribes (being so important) enjoyed this prominent seating.

Jesus sees right through the scribes, though. He knows they don’t like honoring God and serving people in their roles – they like attention and position.

Desire #3: Possessions

“Beware of the scribes … who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. …”

-vv. 38-40

Thirdly, Jesus points out that the scribes like possessions. Verse 40 is really vivid imagery describing them eating up the resources of widows – the most vulnerable people. They were using their position to take advantage of others.

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Not only did the scribes do this, but they also covered over their true character with pretend prayers. They didn’t like honoring God and serving people – they liked possessions. And so they used people to their own advantage.

Jesus’ conclusion couldn’t be clearer at the end of verse 40:

“… They will receive the greater condemnation.”

We All Desire Attention, Position and Possessions

Although we’ve been forgiven and transformed by Jesus Christ, our remnant sin-nature is still clinging on. Therefore, everyone of us has sinful desires. We all desire to have attention, be in the best position and have more possessions. Religious leaders are not the only ones.

What This Has to Do with Us

In light of what Jesus has taught, we need to hold each other and our religious leaders accountable. We have to be watchful. You do not want to follow a religious leader who desires attention, position and possessions – if they go off track, so will you.

A more prime application of all this is regarding religious leaders that we don’t know personally. We have TV, radio, podcasts, bookstores – so many ways for us to be influenced by preachers we’ll never meet. And we need to watch out for them. We need to beware of those people who show signs of an inordinate desire for attention, position and possessions.

So, beware of bad religious leaders. But, on a more positive note, behold Jesus Christ – the ultimate religious leader. He was nothing like the scribes.

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Jesus did not desire attention.

… he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

– Isaiah 53:2

In other words, Jesus didn’t come in a robe of “look at me; I’m important.” He came in humble appearance, giving attention to the people He was serving.

Jesus did not desire position.

[Jesus,] who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

– Philippians 2:6-7

Jesus didn’t desire position – He gave it away. He gave up His position so that He could lift us up.

Jesus did not desire possessions.

And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

– Luke 9:58

Let’s follow Jesus. Let’s follow religious leaders who are like Jesus. And let’s become like Jesus.

Discussion Starters

  1. What are the three things that bad religious leaders desire?
  2. How can you tell if a religious leader has an inordinate desire for attention? What about position? Possessions?
  3. What should you do if you know that your religious leader is overcome by these desires?
  4. As pointed out, everyone has the desire for attention, position and possessions. Are these desires wrong?

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