A sermon based on Mark 12:38-44
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
November 7, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our
Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

They [that is, the scribes] devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. They
will receive the greater condemnation. Mark 12:40

As I was preparing this sermon this week, I came across a news article that reminded me that it
is often true that “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Maybe you have heard this
particular story as well. It involves a 79 year old man named William Neil Gallagher. Mr. Gallagher is
someone who preyed upon others for financial gain—all the while hiding behind a mask of religious
William Neil Gallagher is a conservative Christian radio show host and financial consultant based
out of North Richland Hills, just outside of Dallas, Texas. Well, he was anyway. He is not anymore…
In a Dallas County court room recently, Mr. Gallagher admitted to stealing $29.2 million from a
group of his elderly radio listeners. He was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison and was ordered to pay
more than $10 million in restitution. His radio show, called “The Money Doctor,” had promised about 60
Christian investors a guaranteed annual return of 5%-9% on their money. And the investments were
supposedly risk free. Gallagher described the returns to the investors as “retirement income you’ll never
outlive.” As it turned out, none of that was true. It did not happen. Instead Gallagher took the money
from his investors and used it for payroll, radio and website costs, and personal expenses such as legal
fees. The charges filed against him included theft, money laundering and securities fraud. He pled guilty
to all of them.
At the sentencing hearing, lead prosecutor Alexis Goldate told the court that “Gallagher took
advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in our society…He targeted elderly investors and
individuals attracted to his Christian ideals and then stole from them…”
Following his guilty plea and sentencing, it was reported that Gallagher apologized in court to
his friends and family for his actions. Incredibly, there is no record of Gallagher apologizing to those
people whom he had swindled—some of them out of their entire retirement savings…

1 www.dailymail.com.uk/news/article/article-8181883/Radio-host-79-sentenced-25-years-24-2-million-Ponzischeme-targeted-listners-html (Accessed November 3, 2021)
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This morning’s text is one that is often used for sermons this time of year. That’s because,
around this time in the church calendar, many churches have an emphasis on stewardship and giving to
the church. That’s logical, of course. Many churches are preparing their budget for the next year in
October and November. The point of such sermons from this passage usually focus on the second half of
the story—the story traditionally known as “The Widow’s Mite.” The sermons and Sunday School
lessons invariably talk about the sacrifice that the widow made with Jesus noting that the widow had
given all the money that she had to live on. The lessons then usually go on to talk about sacrificial giving
and how God approves of us giving sacrificially as well.
All of that is well and good. Let me be clear on this point: I am not throwing rocks at any of
those kinds of sermons and Bible study lessons. Stewardship is an important topic from both the
standpoint of one’s personal discipleship and also to the church’s ongoing mission. Truth be told, Jesus
had a lot to say about money, how it is to be used and warnings about “the deceitfulness of riches.” But
concerning this passage from Mark 12, current scholarship seems to point up an entirely different take
on this passage than what has been previously given…and what it really means…and what Jesus really
meant concerning the widow’s mite…
As many times as I have encountered teaching on this passage, the first part of it has been
something of a puzzle. In the first part, Jesus warns his listeners about the scribes who make a show of
their religion. He describes them as wearing long robes and publically praying long prayers in an effort to
have people notice them and take note of their religiosity. They like to put on a show in front of others.
They enjoy the attention that it brings to them. But Jesus was not impressed. He describes them as
being hypocrites because they did these things solely for the sake of appearances. The people that he is
describing are not particularly godly people. Their outward appearance does not reflect who they really
are on the insde. That part of the text is obvious in its meaning and it is hard to miss.
But there’s a detail in what our Lord had to say that I do not remember hearing discussed very
much. In it, Jesus characterizes the scribes as those who “devour widow’s houses…” I dunno why that
has been…Maybe the preachers that I heard through the years all assumed that the detail was
unimportant. Or maybe they just figured that everyone already knew its meaning. Or maybe they
themselves did not understand what Jesus was talking about. However I would tell you that I, for one,
didn’t understand. And I would wager that I was not the only one in those congregations who did not
understand what Jesus was referring to.
So that raises the question: what does that phrase mean? What is Jesus talking about? How is it
that these religious professionals would devour widow’s houses? Well, it seems that what Jesus is
referring to is something akin to the kinds of things that William Neil Gallagher was convicted of in the
story that I related to you in the sermon’s introduction…People who use one’s religion as a cloak to
hide their greed and sinful behavior…
In 1st Century Palestine, it is important to note that the scribes were not just teachers and
interpreters of the Old Testament law. They certainly were that. But in the Temple and in the
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synagogues scattered throughout Judah, the scribes had an additional job. They also functioned as
clerks in a civil capacity. That is, they kept the public records of the community. It was their
responsibility to maintain and preserve records of births, deaths, marriages, divorces, tax receipts, land
sales, and all sorts of other public transactions. By the time of Jesus, they had performed those tasks for
hundreds of years. The Jewish people knew that they could count on the scribes to maintain those
public records throughout all the political turmoil that the land endured. That included the times of civil
war and insurrections that regularly occurred. And it also included the times when the nation was
conquered and occupied by foreign powers. The Old Testament tells us that the Persians, the
Babylonians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and then finally the Roman Empire all ruled the
nation at one time or another in the six hundred years before Jesus arrived. The scribes were vital to
maintaining some semblance of order in the Jewish community by the keeping of records. And because
they performed this valuable service in addition to teaching God’s laws, scribes were typically held in
high regard by the people.
The scribes had an additional function related to their record keeping duties. As you probably
recall, women in 1st Century Palestine had few legal rights. That was certainly true when compared to
men. Jewish custom of the time forbade women from owning land. So when a married man died, his
widow could not inherit and lay claim to outright ownership of the land that had belonged to her
husband. Instead, one of the local scribes was designated to act as a kind of trustee over the estate. The
scribe would continue in this capacity until the woman remarried—if she ever did—or until she died.
The system was set up so that the scribe could protect the widow and the interests of the estate.
For their services, the scribes charged the widow what amounted to an administrative fee.
These fees were collected by the scribes on a regular basis. Sometimes the fees were reasonable. Other
times, the historical record shows that some of the more unscrupulous scribes took advantage of the
situation. They would charge fees that were exorbitant and excessive. Eventually over time, sometimes
the value of the estate became so diminished by years of fees charged by the scribe that the land had to
be sold to pay off the widow’s accumulated debts. Once the land was sold, then the widow would be
broke and have to throw herself on the mercy of her extended family in order to survive. THAT’S what
Jesus meant when he accused the scribes of “devouring widow’s houses”…and he had little patience
with scribes who were guilty of such practices…
In the second part of today’s text, Jesus and his disciples were sitting down near the place in the
Temple where the offering was given. A number of wealthy people came and put large sums of money
into the Temple treasury. Then Jesus noticed a poor widow who came up to the treasury and put in two
small copper coins. These coins were the smallest denomination of money at that time. And Jesus
remarked to his disciples that, while her gift was small by their standards, she had given all that she had
to live on.
After observing the widow and making a few comments, notice what Jesus didn’t do. He did not
hold the widow up as an example for the disciples to follow. He did not turn to them and say something
like, “See what she did? Go…and do thou likewise…” No—he did not do that. Nor did he praise the
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widow’s action. Instead, he seems to discuss it in a matter-of-fact kind of way. It makes you
wonder…Perhaps something different is going on here…
Could it be that the widow giving the two small coins is one of those whose home has been
“devoured” by some dishonest scribe? And that because of that, she was living in poverty as a result?
Maybe Jesus was pointing up to the disciples just how morally bankrupt the religious system of their day
had become. Scribes acting as trustees of a widow’s estate were supposed to be a safeguard, helping to
protect some of society’s most vulnerable members. But the system had failed miserably…My guess is
that Jesus had become so disgusted with how some had used religion to exploit people that he just
could not stomach it any longer…He had had more than enough…
Mark indicates that the words in today’s passage were the last words that Jesus ever spoke in
the Temple. The next verses in chapter 13 tell us that, as Jesus was leaving the Temple, he told his
disciples that there would be a time when the Temple would be destroyed—and not one stone would
be left upon another. He then takes his disciples to Bethany, a small town just outside the city where
they will spend the night. The day after that was Thursday, when Jesus would share one last meal with
his disciples before being arrested and executed on Good Friday…
Whatever adjectives that one may use to describe Jesus, “naïve” is not one of them. There is
nothing naïve about Jesus. Jesus knows how the world works. And just like Mr. Gallagher’s story that we
considered earlier, Jesus knows that there are always those who will try to highjack religion in order to
make a buck…or toward some other unholy end. And because of that, Jesus warned his disciples to be
“wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”2
Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned that there would be those who would
come to his people seeking to take advantage of them. They would appear seemingly to be as harmless
as sheep. But inside they would be ravenous wolves ready to devour the flock. He went on to say that
not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. He said, “Many will say to me on
[the Day of Judgment], did we not preach in your name? Did we not cast out demons in your name? And
did we not perform many miracles in your name?” And Jesus said that he will tell them plainly, “I never
knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”3
In his farewell address to the church at Ephesus, the Apostle Paul also emphasized this same
point. He told the church, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not
spare the flock. Even from your own number, men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw others
after them. So be on your guard!…”4

2 Matthew 10:16.
3 Matthew 7:15, 22-23.
Acts 10:29-31a.
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I guess that the main point of the sermon today is be careful. Be smart. There are those who
make a show of religion as a means to an end. I do not know about you, but I for one am glad that last
week’s election is in the books. During the campaign, often politicians will parade their religion—even if
they don’t really have any— in front of the media in order to gain favor with particular segments of
voters. It obviously works for them because we see it most every election cycle…Jesus says, “Be careful!
Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
Or some will use religion as a way of gaining someone’s trust in order to steal from them—as
Mr. Gallagher did. “Be wise as serpents…and harmless as doves.” Or some will use religion as a cloak to
hide some heinous actions. I do not have to tell you about the widespread sexual abuse scandals that
have rocked churches and denominations over the last decades. The sex abuse scandals of pedophile
priests in the Roman Catholic Church—and of the church’s subsequent attempts to cover them up—
have been regularly making headlines for several years. But such despicable actions are not limited to
the Catholics…
Earlier this year at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the messengers
overwhelmingly voted to hire a third-party to investigate numerous allegations of sexual abuse and
sexual assault in Southern Baptist entities and in some churches. This group was instructed to give a
report concerning their findings at next year’s convention. Last month, it was reported that the
Executive Committee absolutely refused to obey the convention’s directive. They cited the cherished
Baptist principle of autonomy of the local church as a defense. That was little more than a smokescreen
in religious language. Several members of the committee, including chairmen Ronnie Floyd, have
resigned in protest. Fortunately, enough cool heads have prevailed and the committee is now abiding by
the convention’s directive. I am curious to see what will happen next…
Closer to home, I am sure that you are all aware of the 22 women who have filed lawsuits
against Liberty University over issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault. These instances were
duly reported to the school administration—and then the school did nothing about them in response. It
seems to me that all of these are instances where leaders are trying to hide behind a thin veil of religion
in order to keep up appearances—to further their own interests and the interests of the institution. And
these are Christian institutions, mind you, failing to do the right thing. I imagine that our Lord is as
disgusted by these developments in the 21st Century as he was at the hypocrisy of the actions of the 1st
Century religious leaders. How could he not be?
It is easy as a follower of Jesus to become disheartened and discouraged in the face of such
awful news. News of Christians—and especially of Christian leaders—behaving badly. Of alleged
believers doing and saying things that are so contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it makes me
angry. Because to people outside of the faith, it makes us ALL look like hypocrites. It brings shame to all
of us. We are all being tarred with the same brush. Such actions tarnish the very message that we try to
faithfully proclaim. I hate it. And it makes my blood boil when so-called Christian leaders try to use
religion to cover up their evil actions. It is so wrong on so many levels.
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But take heart…And be vigilant. 1 John 4 tells us, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but
test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the
world…You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is
greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the
viewpoint of the world.” Greater is the one who is in you than the one who is in the world…
To God alone be the glory! Amen