Luke 20:45-21:4

We have before us this morning two short paragraphs which together disclose a fundamental principle of both biblical anthropology (that is, its teaching about human beings) and biblical ethics (that is, its teaching of the moral standards that govern human life.) Each in its own way contributes to that lesson. We begin to read at the end of Luke 20:45.

Text Comment

The Lord had made these criticisms of the religious leadership already on several occasions earlier in Luke’s Gospel (11:37-54; 14:7-14).

The “long robes” distinguished their wearers as gentlemen of leisure as well as officers of the church. No one who did manual labor would wear such long clothing. [Morris, 311]

By “greetings” is meant expressions of deference and respect. In other words, they wanted to be noticed. Similarly the best seats are the seats that draw attention to their being eminent men.

It was forbidden for scribes to take money for their teaching. They were required to share their expertise without charge. But there was nothing to stop people from making gifts to them and perhaps some of the scribes encouraged impressionable widows to give them gifts. Or, perhaps, they managed a widow’s estate and charged a hefty fee for doing so. Luke doesn’t say precisely how they devoured widow’s houses. [cf. Bock, ii, 1643]  This kind of thing is, in fact, something that has happened repeatedly in Christian history and, alas, still occurs today. The health and wealth preachers often receive gifts from people least able to make them. There are by now far too many heartbreaking stories of widows who have given virtually all they had in exchange for the preacher’s promise that the Lord would reward them generously, only to discover that after the preacher had gone home they were left with no home, no income, and no way to replace what had been lost. Human nature has not changed!

With their long prayers the scribes seemed so pious, but their piety was pretense rather genuine godliness. No matter the outward appearance, genuine piety cannot co-exist with either raging pride or the callous treatment of others. The Day of Judgment will reveal the truth because it will reveal the heart.

Jesus was in the temple when delivering the teaching contained in Luke 20 and happened to observe worshippers giving gifts. In the Court of the Women, an outer court of the temple, there were thirteen trumpet-shaped collection boxes, each with an inscription indicating the use to which the offerings would be put. [Edersheim, The Temple, 48-49] Nothing changes does it? We use an offering envelope, but the idea is the same.You can designate the purpose to which your gift will be put.

A widow had few ways of making money in the ancient world. They were typically among the poorest of the poor. The two coins were lepta, the smallest currency in use. The lepton’s value has been computed as one-hundredth of a denarius, so one-hundredth of a day laborer’s daily wage.

Or, as my doctoral advisor put it in his large commentary on the Gospel of Luke, “what matters is not the amount one gives but the amount one keeps for oneself.”

As you may remember from school, ancient philosophers were keenly interested in explaining things, in getting to the bottom of reality. They wanted to figure things out; they craved understanding very much unlike, in many ways, the professional class of analytic philosophers of our day. As a means to that end they developed a system of what they called causes, by which they meant explanatory principles. They thought that if they could figure out the causes of something, they might then claim really to understand that thing.

Aristotle, you remember, famously argued that there were four such causes or four such principles of explanation and once one knew what the four causes of anything were, he could finally claim to understand that thing.

According to this four-fold way of explaining things there was the efficient cause, that by which something comes to be. There was the material cause, what that thing is made of, as it were. Then there was the formal cause, the shape or nature of the thing. And there was the final cause, the end or purpose of something. It was called the final cause because it related to the ultimate or final purpose or reason for the thing you were seeking to understand. So, for example, think of a sculpture, since so much of what was glorious about the ancient world has been preserved in sculpture. The efficient cause of a sculpture, a statue, is the sculptor himself who creates it. The material cause of the statue is the marble from which it is made.  The formal cause is the shape or distinctive property of that statue that makes it look like Caesar or Napoleon or a classical god or a horse or whomever or whatever it is supposed to be. The final cause of that statue is the beautiful artwork itself, something made to be beautiful to look at, or powerful in its emotional impact, or a work of art designed to make the artist famous or rich.

There is, in fact, a great deal of wisdom in seeking to explain things and understand things by breaking their explanation down into parts and pieces. It helps to see something from these four different perspectives. Interestingly, in the modern world, the failure to think in this four-fold way has proved very harmful. Almost no one, for example, thinks any longer of the final causes of things, what they are for; their purpose. The theories of evolution and contemporary naturalism have taught too many people, especially college students, to think of things as unintended accidents rather than as things that have a purpose. As a result we have got out of the habit of asking what something is for, what its intended use is. We don’t ask that about men or women any longer, for example, and our failure to do so has caused untold and perhaps irreversible damage to both men and women. American men, for example, do not any longer know what purpose they have as men, what masculinity is for. And the result has not been a rebirth of noble masculinity, but a caricature of manhood that is now a cause of immense social dislocation and failure and personal unhappiness and frustration. As you may realize, the intelligent design movement is, in part, a reassertion in the biological realm of the final causes of things, the purposes for which things were made.

Well we can discuss human acts or behaviors in the same way. The efficient cause of a prayer is the human being who prays. The material cause of a prayer is the words spoken. The formal cause is the particular expressions that are uttered to God and perhaps as well the posture assumed when the prayer is offered, standing or kneeling for example. But what is the final cause?

Well we might think, surely the one praying intends us to think that the final cause of his prayer is the honor he is paying to God, the submission he is demonstrating to him, and the blessing he is seeking from him. Such are the purposes of prayer. But, Jesus said, it is not always so. In the case of many of the Jewish religious leaders, and the case of many so-called Christians ever since, the final cause of their prayers was their own reputation for piety. They prayed as they prayed in order to be noticed and admired. In the same way, the final cause of an offering given in the temple should be the expression of grateful devotion to God, but perhaps it is not always so. Gifts given so publicly could also be given, as prayers can be offered, to enhance one’s reputation, rather than as a means of loving and serving God.

In both of these instances — the condemnation of the hypocrisy of the scribes and the celebration of the sacrificial gift of the poor widow — it is the final cause, the motive or intention that makes all the difference. The prayers themselves might well have been entirely acceptable, the words, the tone, and the posture reverent, and the requests made appropriate. But the hidden motive spoiled everything. In the same way, gifts are gifts. They may do precisely the good they are received for, be applied to entirely proper ends — in the case of these temple offerings sacrifices of various kinds, the burning of incense and the like – and such gifts may pay for acts of worship that others participate in to good effect. But if offered out of mere duty or worse for the purpose of calling attention to oneself the gift is spoiled. It is not loving sacrifice, it is not an expression of a grateful and devoted heart, as was the pitifully small offering of the poor widow who obviously gave with no thought of anyone noticing her gift and yet who gave very generously.

Any student of the Gospels soon becomes aware of the emphasis the Lord was always putting on the heart and the motives of the heart as the true measure of human life and action. This, as you recall, was a great theme of his Sermon on the Mount and one he returned to frequently. Here in his last public teaching he lays emphasis on it once more.

The Lord was always going to the bottom of things and to the bottom of our hearts. Over and again he laid bare the motives of the scribes and Pharisees, motives which, he said, rendered their pious works null and void. They loved the praise of men more than God. In Luke 16:14, as here in 20:47, he said they loved money more than God.

Now, to be sure, the scribes and Pharisees would have and did hotly deny that such were their motives. But, said Jesus more than once, they gave themselves away. No one, however vain, admits that he is vain. No one, however greedy, admits that he is motivated by greed. No one, however lazy, admits that leisure and ease are his gods. Very few men and women even know the motives of their hearts; much less will they admit the truth about them. No politician admits that he does what he does to get re-elected, no class-action lawyer admits that he’s in it for the money, no teacher admits that the strike is really just about his own pay, no preacher admits that he works hard on his sermons so that people will admire him for them.

The scribes, many of whom were Pharisees, hated Jesus in large part because he said about them what any honest man would know was true because it had to be true. Only a vain man would fly into a rage at someone who accused him of vanity, when every honest human being knows full well that pride and vanity peep out of every single pore of every single human being on the face of the earth. A humble man would admit the truth of his vanity; perhaps take some small comfort from the fact that at least what was so sadly true of him was likewise true of everyone else. He might in his embarrassment wonder in what particular ways he had given himself away, but no truly humble man would hate a man for pointing out a fault that every human being shares. But the Pharisees hated Jesus for that reason. He accused them of vanity and the love of money and the fact that they hated him for it was the public revelation of how much they loved themselves and how much they loved money. They should have said, “Guilty as charged, help us please to be better men, men whose lives are pleasing to the God who looks upon the heart,” but instead they said, “Crucify him!” They gave themselves away.

But they hated Jesus for another reason as well. Being vain men they were intensely jealous that Jesus was getting from the people the applause they wanted so desperately for themselves. Pride and envy are two sides of the same coin, and proud as they were they couldn’t help but be furiously jealous of the Lord’s success, his popularity, his power over illness, and his reputation as a riveting teacher. They hated the good that he did for others because it advanced his reputation at the expense of theirs.

Indeed, at the end their envy of Jesus so controlled them and consumed them that they couldn’t hide it from anyone. Even a man of as little moral sensibility as Pontius Pilate knew full well that jealousy was the real reason the priests and elders dragged Jesus before him and demanded his crucifixion. Mark tells us that in his Gospel (15:10).

So this description of these very religious men — first his positive criticism and then his counter-example of a truly faithful soul — repeated his longstanding critique of the religious faith and life of these men and gives us a fundamental insight into the understanding and the measurement of our lives. This pretense was, he said, a mask behind which hid hearts which were devoted neither to God nor to others. Hotly as they would have denied it, much as their public behavior would have suggested otherwise, they were worshippers of themselves and not of God.

The lesson for us then is that it is fundamental to the explanation of human life and behavior, to consider final causes, the motives for which things are done. These very religious men, known to be religious, active in the practice of their faith, Jesus said, would not receive less reward, he said, they would will receive the greater condemnation, because of their false motives. Or, as Alexander Whyte put it, “The uttermost sinner will be found in a church, not a prison.” [With Mercy and with Judgment, 241-246] William Tyndale went still further.

“Antichrist will ever be the best Christian man.” [Works, 3:107]

Everyone is a hypocrite because everyone is proud and vain, but religious hypocrisy is the worst because it hides itself behind a pretended devotion to God.

But the main point is that it is the motive that counts. The size of the offering doesn’t matter to God except as it is proof of the motive. Hence the widow’s two tiny coins, insignificant to the actual cost of temple worship, were an immense offering because her poverty made that gift a genuine sacrifice, such a sacrifice as only love and devotion and gratitude would make. All the religious pretense of the scribes, however, counted for nothing, because God weighs the heart and their hearts weren’t at prayer, their hearts didn’t love God in the marketplace and the synagogue, and their hearts weren’t making offerings in the temple.

Only men and women, among all the creatures God has made, have motives. Have you ever thought of that? The sun and the stars move as their creator has appointed. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea and the creatures of the land eat, drink, and reproduce as they have been made to do. A dog may know his master and learn to obey. He may learn to do a trick to receive a treat. But, all the while, the dog has no motives. He has not chosen to do something for the good of that thing; he has not chosen between various alternatives for the sake of some higher and nobler purpose. The creatures do not intend to give glory to God in anything that they do.

To human beings alone did God give motives! Motivation is part of the image of God. That image makes us live our lives for specific reasons. Men and women alone are motivated in that higher sense; able to choose not only to do a particular thing, but to choose the reason for doing that thing. Only of human beings can it be said that “out of their hearts flow the issues of life” or “as a man thinks in his heart, so he is.” And that is why God’s judgment always begins and ends deep in our hearts and in the weighing of our motives. Because the action, morally considered, is defined by the reason for which it is done.

Malcolm Muggeridge, in his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time, explained why he had come to repudiate his earlier hope of some utopia on earth.

“The essential quality of our lives, as I now understood, was a factor, not so much of how we lived, but of why we lived. It was our values, not our production processes, or our laws, or our social relationships, that governed our existence.”

This is true and, what is more, we know it is true, every human being knows it is true. Our consciences tell us that we are most ourselves down deep, where our motives are found. What we are in truth is what we are in the intentions of our hearts and the reasons for which we speak and act. That, after all, is why we so often hide our true motives from others. We wouldn’t want them to see that: the jealousy that prompted that remark, the greed that led us to act in that way, the selfishness that was the real reason we declined to contribute or help in that way. Even in the most intimate relationships of life we hide our motives from one another, very well aware that were they to be known, the act itself would be interpreted very differently! If we are not acting out of love for God and others even the impressive things we may do are finally only what Augustine famously called “peccata splendida,” splendid sins.

Surely it is significant that when the Lord reduced all of his law to two commandments, he cast them in terms that speak directly to our motives. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Act so as to please and honor God; act so as to do good to your neighbor. That was his summary of all of God’s will for your life. The rest of the commandments are just details to help us to know better how to act with those motives.

People think, everyone thinks, Christians included from time to time, “Are we really as bad as the Bible says we are? Are we really such terrible sinners, living our ordinary lives the way we do, that nothing short of the suffering and death of the creator of heaven and earth could avail to cover our sins? Well, the answer to that question is “Yes,” even if only behavior is considered. How often have you, do you love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? And how have you done so and how many times have you done so in the years of your life? How many neighbors have you loved as much as you love yourself? And what is the proof that you have offered that extravagant love for neighbor after neighbor after neighbor? Your commissions are bad enough, but your omissions are the index of your fatal peril, of your almost total moral failure as a human being. But that’s behavior. What if God looks not only at your behavior but at your motives? What if he is seeing an almost constant display of selfishness, of pride, of sloth, of disinterest in all things holy even when your behavior, outwardly considered appears acceptable to others? Motives tell the tale because God is always aware of them better than you are and is always weighing your behavior by them.

Now there are two obvious applications of the Lord’s teaching here and both are of immense importance to the living of the Christian life.

  1. The first is that we must always judge ourselves by our motives because God does.

It is no good complimenting ourselves on our outward acts and the reputation they give us if God knows and we know that those acts and that reputation are nullified by selfish, vainglorious, and unworthy motives.

If you desire to be holy, if, as a child of God, you wish to honor him with your life, you must attend to your motives because if holiness is not found there, it cannot be found anywhere else, certainly not in your behavior. The act is not itself righteous if a desire to honor God and please him does not move you to act. Think! God is always weighing your motives. He knows why you do what you do. Of course, he will judge the act accordingly. He can’t be taken in like men can be.

You may remember C.S. Lewis’ perceptive observation: “No one knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.” Well if you wish to become a humble man or woman, just try to keep your motives pure in all things, try always to do the right things for the right reasons and it will not be long before you are convinced all over again that you need a redeemer! Whether in this house of worship, or at home, or at work; in conversation with others or in the private thoughts of your mind when you are alone, start and end with your motives, your reasons. Be the Lord’s man or the Lord’s woman there and you will be his man or woman indeed! I’m giving you a labor saving device. You don’t need to worry about your behavior, just worry about your motives. If you get your motives right, the behavior will take care of itself.

The simple point of the Lord’s teaching in these two short paragraphs is this: if we must wrestle to our dying day with our continuing sinfulness as Christians — as we certainly must — then at least let us be sure we are struggling and working and wrestling in the right place and over the right things. If we only do the right things, our poor motives may nullify what good there is in them. But if we purify our motives, if we consecrate ourselves to God in the reasons for which we act, both our hearts and our actions will be pleasing to God and have his blessing. Not easy work to be sure; but the work most important to do!

If we must face the fact that we remain far removed from that sinless heart full of the purest motives, then we must make it our life’s work to scrub that heart clean of selfish, proud, jealous, lazy, impure motivations and replace them with motives that are worthy and noble: love for God and man, gratitude, humility, and the desire to bear fruit for the kingdom of God. And even those motives that are, in some respects, self-regarding but are nevertheless commended to us in the Word of God — reward in heaven, the gratitude of others, the Lord’s “Well done” – those motives too are then consecrated by humility and gratitude to God for his grace. Since it is the motives that tell, make them the matter of first importance in the offering of yourself to God. When confessing your sins, start with your selfish and impure motives. When seeking God’s grace and help, pray that he will help you there most of all.

  1. The second application is this: right motives make even the smallest acts great in God’s sight.

It is not only that a wrong motive can undo what might otherwise be taken as works of real piety. A true motive can make a work that seems insignificant a work of true nobility. The Lord did not say this just once, here in the case of the poor widow and her tiny but actually very great offering. One cup of cold water, one visit, one salutation on the street, one stop at a sick-bed, one gift, one word when done for Christ’s sake, he said, will be taken as if it were done to him or given to him or said to him when he was in need. It is the secret part of every deed, the part that no one sees but you and God that is the true measure of its goodness and so of its reward.

Must we climb up to the heavens or descend to hell to please the Lord? No! A godly life is mostly simple things, simply done, if only they are done for the right reason, for love’s sake, out of gratitude and loyalty to God our Savior. That is our Savior’s promise here. In the ordinary round of our lives, in the simplest things we can please him greatly, if only we will act with the intention of doing so. We can fill up the daily round of our life with deeds worthy of real reward if only we will do what we do for Christ’s sake, even the simplest things. As one commentator put it, “The secret of religion is religion in secret.” Or as Bengel wrote long before: “All the truth of things is hidden.” [Both on Matthew 6:7-8]

Work to purify your motives. Ask yourself again and again: “What am I doing this for?” If we would be Christians in the fullest sense let us be unwilling to be satisfied with anything less than doing the right things for the right reasons. Make it a point of honor not to care if men see or know what you do. Give your gifts in secret, fast alone, pray in your closet, and serve with no thought to the praise of men. Look for the opportunity to do the right thing invisibly. Because God sees what you do in secret and his approval is all that matters. The man or woman who is happy to serve him without anyone else knowing, is the man or woman who understands that and for whom that truth is immensely important.

And pray and pray every day this simple prayer of Holy Scripture:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts…”