In Matthew 23:13–15, Jesus pronounced a series of stern warnings against Pharisaism, a danger to today’s spiritual leaders just as it was in ancient times. Jesus condemned the Jewish religious teachers of His day, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation” (Matthew 23:13–14, NKJV).
The Pharisees and scribes were religious hypocrites who did not practice what they preached. They were proud show-offs who enjoyed the praise and recognition of people more than honoring, obeying, and pleasing the Lord. Rather than managing their spiritual responsibilities with integrity, they abused, oppressed, and neglected God’s people.
The scribes and Pharisees were well-versed in Old Testament Scripture and Jewish law. They knew that caring for widows was of extreme importance to God and the duty of His people, especially spiritual leaders (Exodus 22:22–23; Psalm 68:5; 82:3–4; Proverbs 15:25; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:3). The Lord warned in Deuteronomy 27:19, “Cursed is anyone who denies justice to foreigners, orphans, or widows” (NLT).
The scribes and Pharisees should have been protecting widows and showing them compassion. Instead, they were men “who devour widows’ houses” (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40). Jesus told His disciples, “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be severely punished” (Luke 20:46–47, NLT).
The phrase devour widows’ houses means “greedily cheat widows out of their property.” In ancient times widows held little or no power in the courts. It was not uncommon for a husband to appoint in his will a Jewish legal expert—a scribe or Pharisee—to be the executor of his widow’s estate. Essentially, this gave the executor authority to oversee the widow’s finances and assets. It would not be hard for a corrupt lawyer to find legal ways to trick a widow out of her house and other property—and this is precisely what the religious leaders were doing. It could be that’s why the poor widow Jesus noticed in Mark 12:42 only had “two very small copper coins” to give.
Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees for exploiting the needy so that they could grow fatter and richer. These religious hypocrites were so spiritually callous that, after greedily pilfering from the needy, they would put on a public show of prayerful piety.
In the parable of the faithful steward, Jesus said, “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required” (Luke 12:48, NLT). Many of Israel’s leaders—those who had been entrusted with much—used their positions to gain personal power and wealth. They did this by oppressing and taking advantage of the people they were supposed to guard and protect.
The scribes and the Pharisees who devoured widows’ houses were like the wicked servant in Matthew 24:48–51 who had access to all the master’s household and used it to indulge his greedy appetite and abuse his fellow servants. Jesus said, “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:50–51; see also Luke 12:45–48).
As Christians, we need to pay careful attention to Christ’s warning not to devour widows’ houses. This charge goes out to anyone guilty of exploiting the most vulnerable people in society. Such a crime should not exist among God’s people, especially those who hold leadership positions in the church.
God calls us to be servant leaders who protect others and even lay down our lives for those He entrusts to our care (John 10:11). A true Christian leader will look after widows in their distress (James 1:27), honoring and caring for “any widow who has no one else to care for her” (1 Timothy 5:3).