If you had a choice of having power, wealth, or living in poverty, which one of the three would you choose?
Who here hasn’t wished at some time to be in a position of power? Whether because of the need to feel important, to correct an injustice, or to simply get some action. To be in a situation where by just the giving of a word, people would jump to attention.
Who here hasn’t wished at some time to be more comfortably off? To be in a situation where they have sufficient resources to live on without having to worry about the future. Whether because of the need to be independent, to feel secure, or because of a desire to help others less fortunate than themselves.
And in contrast, who here hasn’t had times when life has been a struggle? When new clothes were something that couldn’t be afforded; where it wasn’t certain from where the next meal was going to come; and when better times seemed like a pipe dream.
So if you were given the choice of having power, wealth, or living in poverty, which of the three would you choose?
B. POWER, WEALTH AND POVERTY
Well, interestingly, the topics of power, wealth, and poverty are the three things that are mentioned in this passage from Mark. But they are not things which are introduced in isolation. Indeed, they are introduced with one specific thing in mind. That is, from the perspective of people who claimed to have faith.
And in each case Jesus drew on his observations of life. And he used them to comment about how each situation could affect one’s spirituality.
1. Power (38-40)
a) The Scribes (38a)
Now, for the first example, representing power, Jesus turned to the Scribes—the religious leaders of the day.
Now, scribes were distinguished visibly by their dress. They wore long white linen robes, decorated with long fringes. They were also venerated by the majority of the people, with unbounded respect and awe. So for example, when a scribe passed by, people rose respectfully. They were greeted with titles of deepest respect, like Rabbi, Father, and Master. They were assigned the highest places of honour, having precedence over the aged, and even over their own parents. And even in the synagogue the seat of honour was reserved for them, sitting at the front in full view of the congregation.
However, one of the features of being a Scribe, was that they were not allowed to be paid for what they did. And as a consequence, they had to depend on the hospitality of others to survive. And much of what the scribes stood for was well and good . . .
b) Jesus’s Observation (38b-40)
Except for the fact that there was a tendency for them to become intoxicated with their positions. They played up to their positions of power, to the point where Jesus was able to identify three things that affected their spirituality:
Firstly, there was a tendency to be preoccupied with their need for the praise of men and the desire of tokens of status. Indeed, to such an extent, that it was not unusual for important men,
when giving a feast, to invite a distinguished scribe and his pupils to ornament the occasion. It was also not uncommon for the well-off to place their financial resources at their disposal.
Secondly, there was a problem of abuse of privilege. Because the scribes actually encouraged the extension of hospitality to them as an act of piety. And in particular they placed demands on those who could least afford it, sponging on the hospitality of people of limited means.
And, thirdly, as a consequence of both, there was a tendency to become very lax in their religious duties. Their teaching had become simplistic and misleading. And the pursuit of their own desires tended to replace their need to honour God.
2. Wealth (41, 44a)
a) The Rich Men (41)
For the second example, representing wealth, Jesus turned to the example of some evidently rich men.
Now Jesus was seated on a bench in the Temple, in the Court of the Women, and he was watching the people bring their contributions to the treasury.
Now giving at the Temple was not something one could do in secret. There were thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles for people to deposit their money in, placed against the wall of the Court. So what one gave was evident for all too see. And as Jesus sat there, with his disciples close by, he noted many rich men come up and put their contributions into the receptacles.
b) Jesus’s Observation (44a)
Now there’s no doubt that the disciples were impressed with some of the donations. Those who were wealthy made some sizeable contributions and much could be accomplished with the gifts that they brought.
However, and probably to the surprise of the disciples, Jesus wasn’t impressed. Indeed, Jesus made the spiritual observation that rather than these people being generous at all, they had only given what they could afford. After all, they had plenty, and they really wouldn’t miss what they had given at all. They had not placed themselves in any hardship. And consequently, they had missed the point of what being wholehearted in their devotion to God meant. And that was, the giving of time, money, or whatever, beyond what they would normally feel comfortable to give.
3. Poverty (42-43, 44b)
a) The Poor Widow (42)
And for the third example, representing poverty, Jesus turned to the example of a poor widow. Now, she had come to the Temple treasury too, but she was so poor she could only deposit the smallest of copper coins that were in circulation at the time. Nevertheless, she put in two coins and didn’t keep any for herself .
b) Jesus’s Observation (43, 44b)
Now, Jesus’ observation, from a spiritual perspective, was not on how little the Temple authorities could do with those two small coins. Rather it was on the comparative cost of those two coins to the widow.
The woman in absolute poverty could not afford one coin, let alone two. And yet by her sacrificial giving she had demonstrated her wholehearted devotion to God, which neither the scribes with all their power, or the rich men with all their wealth, had been able to do. In contrast to everyone else, she had given all she had, even her whole living.
So with the example of the scribes with their power, the rich men with their wealth, and the widow with her wholehearted devotion to God, Jesus was able to conclude that despite her poverty, only the widow had truly understood the call of God. Only the woman had understood the need for total surrender to God and absolute trust in him.
Now we need to be careful here. Jesus did not say that there was anything wrong with power and wealth. He didn’t say that poverty was desirable either. But what he did say was that it was easier for a person with nothing to have faith, than for those with power or wealth.
Because as far as power is concerned, what Jesus was saying was that simply making a profession of faith to gain an advantage, or to possess power, is not acceptable.
We can be as religious as we like. We can attend church as regularly as we like. We can be on Parish Council or be a Church Warden. Indeed, we can be as actively involved in the church as much as we like. But if our motivation is on seeking positions of honour, or seeking the praise of others, or putting ourselves in a position where we can abuse the privileges that we gain, then our righteousness is just a sham.
Some of the Scribes may have entered the profession with the best of intentions, but the inherent nature of power is that there is a tendency for it to get out of control.
But, as I said, that doesn’t mean that having power is wrong in itself. But for Jesus, it’s what we do with that power that is important. And if we use our positions for anything other than telling others about God, spreading his word, or caring for others, then we too will be worthy of receiving the judgement of God.
Similarly, as far as possessing wealth is concerned, what Jesus was saying was that simply giving what one can afford is missing the mark too.
Now we can give to the church, we can give to charities, we can give to some wonderful causes—and not just in terms of money but in terms of our time, labour, or whatever—but if we only give what we are comfortable to give (what is surplus to our requirements and does not encroach on our own comfort) then we’re missing the whole point too. Because, as far as Jesus is concerned, faith requires sacrificial giving, not just giving what we can afford.
Of course, again, that doesn’t mean that wealth is wrong. Indeed, even in the Bible, we are reminded that God blesses his people with great riches—and sometimes they are of the material kind. But from a faith perspective, wealth brings responsibilities. And if we don’t give until it hurts then we’ve missed the point. And like the rich men who gave in the Temple only what they could afford, we will be answerable to God for the misuse of the things he has given us.
And regarding, poverty . . . Well, no-one likes to be poor. Indeed it is a state that we should make sure that no-one has to endure.
But whilst being poor, in itself, is no guarantee of being righteous, it does have the advantage of not having the temptation to rely on our own resources, that both power and wealth so easily provide.
The poor woman had no power over others and she gave more than she could possibly afford. She depended totally on God for her survival. And as a consequence, Jesus held her up as an example to behold.
In the widow, there was no sham righteousness. Rather she gave nothing less than wholehearted devotion. And it is this wholehearted devotion that Jesus urges us all to attain.
So, let’s back to our original question: ‘If you had a choice of having power, wealth, or living in poverty, which one would you choose?’
Now I’m sure that at times, for one reason or another, we have all wanted to be in positions of power and wealth. And some of us may have even experienced either or both. However the lesson today is: Not that either are wrong in themselves, but there are inherent dangers in both. They both provide temptations, where abuse and misuse can very easily become the order of the day and, as a consequence, our relationship with God can suffer.
So that question again: ‘If you had a choice of having power, wealth, or living in poverty, which one would you choose?’
You know, it is not a simple question to answer. It’s not as easy as it may at first seem. Because, whatever our state the most important thing in life is our relationship with God. And there is no point in having either power or wealth if all we do with them is to distance ourselves from God.
Posted: 16th May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis