The phrase “not all heroes wear capes” has become an internet shorthand to celebrate people. Sometimes the phrase is applied sentimentally other times it is applied with a dose of humor, but it is always to recognize an anonymous or little known person who took an action that somehow made the world a little better. The phrase works because it plays against what we already know, that is heroes normally wear capes. Comic books, especially iconic super heroes like Superman and Batman, have reinforced that heroes wear capes to the point that we do not question it. Comic book super heroes wear capes because they look cool. When drawn on the page they can make for dramatic poses. It is more than an artistic design decision though. In the contexts of the stories, the superheroes that wear capes do so because they want to stand out, they want to know be known and remembered. Capes have a lot of flair, they call a lot of attention, they make a grand impression, and they are memorable. In that regard I think that means Batman has more in common with the teachers of the law than with Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees tried to be the kind of heroes that wore capes, but Jesus challenges them and reminds us that in the kingdom of God, heroes do not wear capes.
One of these challenges can be found in Mark 12:38-40 when Jesus confronts the scribes. The scribes fulfilled an important role in Jewish culture of the era. They were able to write and they had the responsibility of copying and transcribing the Jewish scriptures. The reality is that we would probably not have the Old Testament today if it were not for the work of the scribes. The scribes had mastered writing, and as the copyists of the Old Testament law, they were understood to be well versed in the scripture. In society they were respected and well regarded. The scribes of Jesus day surely saw their work as heroic, but they were types of heroes that wear capes. They wanted to be recognized and rewarded for what they did. They wanted to wear flowing robes and have places of honor at banquets. They were fine with doing good work as long as it bought them a ticket to the good life. Perhaps this why Jesus issued his warning to “watch out for the scribes”.
You see the scribes had a dark side. In the first century, it was not like there were Torah publishing houses. For all intents and purposes the scribes were artists. They worked on commission or tried to find buyers for their work. Their work was time consuming and could take weeks or months to finish. This meant a long time between paydays. This was problematic if the scribes wanted to eat, much less live the aristocratic lifestyle they wanted. The solution for the scribes was patronage. This is a system where artists are essentially sponsored by other people who support their work. With a healthy base of patrons, an artist or a scribe in this case does not have to worry about day to day expenses.
Jesus stated in verse 40 that the scribes “devour widow’s houses.” We get the impression from what Jesus said that widows were popular targets of scribes. Widows had almost no means of taking care of themselves. If there was not a son to support her, then whatever she had left from her late husband’s estate would have been all she had. All funds that a widow gave to support a scribe was coming out of a limited fund. The widow was literally impoverishing herself to support the scribe. The scribes were doing important work but they were intentionally depriving some of the most vulnerable members of their society of resources so they could live posh and extravagant lifestyles.
Jesus finds this right out unacceptable and he plainly states “these men will be punished most severely.” It is no wonder that Jesus warns to watch out for the scribes. They liked to position themselves as teachers of the law and as experts on the Old Testament but they clearly missed the point. They copied the scripture over and over but they clearly did not read with their hearts. There is a clear biblical mandate to protect the vulnerable, to provide for the poor, and to value people over position. The sin of the scribes is they claimed to be teachers of the law yet they openly defiled it. The scribes liked to view themselves as heroes wearing capes. However, a quick look at comic book heroes reveals that super villains are just as likely as the heroes to don a cape. Jesus warned against the scribes because it is the heart of a person not the exterior they present to the world that truly makes a hero.
Jesus warning of the scribes challenges followers of Jesus today to ask how might we be like the scribes? What motivates us to worship God and serve other people? Do we do it because we want to wear a cape? Do we do it because we want the rewards? The rewards people mistakenly seek in faith are varied. There are people who do good deeds because they want to be recognized and patted on the back. Then there are others who do it because they have a faulty logic that the more good they do the better their chances are of getting into heaven. The question that this scripture really challenges us with is do we seek to follow Jesus because of what we can get out of it or do we follow Jesus because Jesus is a savior worth following?
We should follow Jesus because we love Jesus, not because there is some reward. Because we love Jesus, we should seek to follow his command and examples. Instead of taking advantage of the most vulnerable like the scribes we provide extravagant care for them. Instead of demonizing the outsider we invite them in and show radical hospitality and instead of judging the unloved we embrace them with unfailing love. We do these things regularly, and we do not seek recognition for our good deeds. We do it because it is the right thing to do. It is what Jesus would do, and it is what Jesus calls us to do because not all heroes wear capes.