By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
A few weeks ago, I was in an impoverished part of the world. On our way to the church where I was going to preach, I met the eyes of a woman sitting with her children on the streets. I don’t know her story. And I couldn’t speak much of her language to find out. But her eyes told the story. She was broken.
It was early in the morning. Cold for that part of the world. She and her kids were selling candies to try to make ends meet. I bought some candy and gave a generous tip. I gave her a witness tract in her language and tried to somehow communicate hope just by meeting her eyes.
In the background was a massive cathedral. I’d stepped into there the evening prior while a service was taking place. It was breathtaking. The walls were lined with gold. The wooden seats were polished and clearly an expensive wood. They spared no expense in this house of worship. It was decked out in a full Christmas celebration.
What do I do with this?
What do I do with a woman and her starving children, peddling candy just around the corner of a massive structure, lined with gold, that is supposedly peddling hope and good news?
“The Poor You Will Always Have…”
In Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12, the story is told of Jesus visiting the home of a leper named Simon. While he was reclining, a woman breaks an alabaster jar of expensive perfume and proceeds to pour it out upon the feet of Jesus. The disciples—we learn from John that Judas was the ring leader—are upset at her action.
“Why this waste of money? It could have been given to the poor!” The text says, “they rebuked her harshly.” But Jesus stepped in and rebuked them:
The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. (Mark 14:7-8)
Is Jesus saying, then, that when it comes to worship—the poor are to take a back seat? Does this verse give sanction to building the extravagant Christmas cathedral, in honor of Jesus, while the poor woman remains on the street?
It might be helpful to know that when Jesus says, “the poor you will always have with you,” he is actually quoting a Bible verse. It is Deuteronomy 15:11 that stands underneath Jesus’ words here.
For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore, I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’
Rather than causing us to ignore the poor or throw up our hands in exhaustion, Deuteronomy says that the need of others should bring about open-handedness. But what kind of contrast is Jesus making here? Is he telling the disciples to put Deuteronomy on pause because now is the time for worship?
Yes, and no. Let me explain.
Why Was the Temple So Extravagant?
That cathedral is likely extravagant because the temple in the Old Testament was extravagant. It’s simply an extension of what we saw God call the Israelites to build as a display of His glory in the Old Testament. But why?
Why doesn’t God simply build a little hut somewhere, fill it with His glory, and allow the Israelites to approach Him this way? Why be so extravagant? When there are poor people all around, when it causes such expansive labor, why does God command them to fill the temple with gold?
God always condescends to speak to us. (That’s not saying He speaks condescendingly but that He always has to stoop to communicate with us). At times that might mean meeting us in our brokenness and squalor. But there is another way in which God might condescend to speak to us, he speaks to us in our idolatrous wealth. An extravagant temple is a necessary form of God condescending to show His glory to the nations.
Bauckham speaks of the way in which God showed His deity to the nations:
We may have difficulty with this picture of God desiring and achieving fame for himself, something we would regard as self-seeking vanity and ambition if it were said of a human being. But this is surely one of those human analogies which is actually appropriate uniquely to God. The good of God’s human creatures requires that he be known to them as God. There is no vanity, only revelation of truth, in God’s demonstrating of his deity to the nations.
Did you catch that? “No vanity, only revelation of truth…”
But what happens if the temple becomes an issue of vanity and pride? What if rather than a lighthouse to the nations, a display of the glory of God, the temple becomes something entirely different? In that case, you have Jeremiah calling it a den of robbers (Jeremiah 7:11) and that the temple is destroyed. And you have Jesus, overthrowing tables in the extravagant temple and quoting Jeremiah 7:11.
Extravagance can be revelatory. But if it terminates upon itself—if it’s not aimed at mission—then it’s foolishness.
No Simple Answers
This is why there are no simple answers to the question of extravagance and poverty. We do not know the full story of the woman and her kids. We do not know the full story of that church and its outreach. Bruce Milne provides us with a helpful conclusion:
The cross must control every aspect of the disciple’s life, including alms-giving. Jesus is not presenting us with the competing loyalties of ‘spiritual’ versus ‘material’ giving. It is a prime case of both/and, rather than either/or, with each at the proper occasion, and all in the light of the cross.
It is very easy to look at a situation from the outside and make a simple judgment. Some may look at poverty—or an impoverished person—and make a blanket judgment that the solution to their poverty is for them to overcome sloth, bad spending, immorality, and personal responsibility. Likewise, some might look at an extravagant church and see only greed and self-centeredness. Both narratives could be true. But it’s also possible there is another story.
The key issue as we are confronted with poverty and the call of Christ is our own hearts and our own motivations. We can be like Judas—calling for a redistribution of wealth to disguise our own greed. And we can be like the woman in the story who seems rather wasteful and yet has a heart beating with worship.
Here are a few questions to ask of our hearts, especially during this Christmas season:
- Am I stewarding the resources God has given me as a display of His glory?
- Am I obeying the call of Luke 14:12-14 to give preference to the poor?
- Is the cross controlling this aspect of my life?
- Am I seeing greed mortified in my life? Is having a Messiah complex being mortified in my life?
Bruce Milne, The Message of John: Here Is Your King!: With Study Guide, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 177.
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