Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Beati Pauperes Spiritu or Beati Possidentes

In the Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament text, Jesus himself says in Matthew 5:3, “beati pauperes spiritu” or “Blessed in spirit are the poor”. The modern church doesn’t typically reflect those sentiments, in effect, creating even more separation between Jesus and “His Bride”.

More often than not, the modern church has forgotten “beati pauperes spiritu” and in its place adopted, “beati possidentes”, or “blessed are those who possess”. The widow with a mite is no longer the standard of giving for the followers of Jesus. Read carefully the verses regarding the widow in Mark 12. This time, in what will probably be a new context for many of you:
38As he taught, Jesus said, "Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, 39and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."
41Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
43Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on."

It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t begin with a warning about demons or possessed people. However, Jesus does indeed issue a warning, “Watch out for the teachers of the law”. Jesus then describes what these dangerous teachers of law will do. According to the Messiah, the teachers will enjoy walking around as people of status, they will enjoy the popularity and honor others bestow on them, they will make their religion very “showy”-for the benefit of others seeing them and therefore propping up their status and credibility from a social perspective. But for our specific purpose today another description of the dangerous teachers of the law is “they devour widows’ houses”.

The idea of devouring a widow is not to literally consume them but rather to rob them, take all they have, strip them of what little remains in the midst of their loneliness. One Bible translation reads, “But they cheat widows out of their homes” (CEV). I think that is very accurate and even further sets up what is about to happen in this scene. Imagine this pompous man of religion that is wealthy, probably through less than ethical means, respected and morally bankrupt. Instead of “look(ing) after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27) and in so doing practice what the Bible labels “pure and undefiled religion” these men will look at women in need and use their vulnerability against them. Obviously, anyone that would take someone who is weak and exploit them is beyond immoral. As such, Mark 12 says these people will be sentenced to a very harsh punishment.
After describing what the dangerous teachers of the law would do, Jesus sits down and simply watches as people place their offerings in the treasury. It is as though mankind has become so predictably evil and parasitic, especially in religious circles, that Jesus turns around to those he was teaching and with a wink and a smile said, “watch this”. Not too long after explaining what happens in religious settings, particularly when it involves money, Jesus has the opportunity to elbow a disciple in the ribs as he smiles and says, “I told you”. What did he tell them and more importantly for us, what is he still saying to us?

“Many rich people threw in large amounts” is a statement that says a few things without actually saying them. For example, if people were giving in the fashion they should, no one would be able to say who gave more. The fact that the text quantifies the number of people and the amount they gave indicates that maybe there was a bit of the religious positioning going on. Maybe a relatively rich person makes sure others are aware that he put in a large sum and he feels good about it, until someone with more wealth trumps him with an even larger amount. This routine could go on for a while and many of the people involved in the financial wrangling in the house of God probably did notice the poor widow that made sure her gift went unnoticed. The last thing people want to do is draw attention to the issues in their life that are lacking or insignificant. The only person present that matter noticed the widow, and that is all that mattered.
Jesus had just spoken about dangerous teachers of the law robbing from widows and now both the religious status seekers and the widow have proven his point. While the religious are jockeying for position, the widow quietly “gives out of her poverty”. These men, thinking they have done something spectacular, have been upstaged in the eyes of God by a widow. The widows were usually just prey for these kinds of people, but not in this case, not in the eyes of God. This woman understood that the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with what one brings to the table, it has nothing to do with show and it has nothing to do with contributions. God doesn’t need money, after all, He owns the cattle on a thousand hilltops (Psalm 50). What God desires is exactly what this widow gives…everything. She obviously knew that she didn’t have enough to compete with the “religious”, but it wasn’t about competition, it was about complete surrender. The widow wasn’t able to fund a ministry, but it wasn’t about funding a ministry, it was about a sincere spirit. The widow couldn’t buy status or credibility with her offering, but it wasn’t about status or credibility, it was about obedience in the face of arrogance. In stark contrast to the religious, stands the righteous and Jesus reveals the heart of the Father by saying who gave more and who’s sacrifice was more pleasing to Him. It wasn’t about the amount, it was about the heart.

Unfortunately, this story and this lesson are largely forgotten in your average church today. Want proof? Show me a church with a finance committee, accounting committee or something similar and I will show you people that handle money well, enjoy an above average lifestyle, an above average income and are likely to be wealthy
relative to the other members of the church. I personally have never been to a church, nor has anyone I know, that had a bankrupt individual on the finances committee. Though exceptions always exist, you are not likely to see someone serve on a finance committee that also needs help from the benevolence fund from time to time.

The typical excuse given for why people are given charge of finances at any given church is because they have proven in life to be a “good steward”. While I have often heard that we are called to be “good stewards” in the midst of sermons and classes regarding finances, I can’t find the same amount of attention paid to financial stewardship in scripture. Make no mistake, we are call to be good stewards. Let’s look at the ways in which the Bible calls us to good stewardship:

I Peter 4: as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. (Grace)
Titus 1: as the steward of God (Leadership)
I Corinthians 4: stewards of the mysteries of God. (Representing God)
Luke 12: Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household (Leadership)

The other Biblical references to being a steward or stewardship in general is simply as a title or an administrative role one may fulfill. While I think we can certainly say that financial responsibility is a good thing and even a God thing, I don’t think we can omit the poor widow that served as an example for Jesus to teach his followers some 2000 years ago. Maybe Jesus still wants to use her example to teach his followers today.

Are power structures in the typical church dictated by finances? I would argue that generally speaking, churches do exactly what Jesus says the dangerous teachers of the law did and exactly what we are warned not to do again in James 2 by showing favoritism.
James 2: “1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor person in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the one who is poor, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? 8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

Lest we forget brilliant and emancipating aspects of the Kingdom of God is that the last is first, the broken made whole, the lacking is made sufficient, the blind see and the lame walk (Luke 7). Sadly the Kingdom is often portrayed to the world by church attendees in the areas of finances and power as being no different than the world. All too often, the attractive, wealthy, talented and gifted fill the roles within the leadership hierarchy and the major decisions are made, directly or indirectly by those who wield the funds. Can it be that the Golden Rule of Jesus has been traded for the Golden Rule of the world…”those who have the gold make the rules”?

So what about wealth? Often the Bible is misquoted when people declare with the best intentions, “money is the root of all evil”. Actually it is the “love of money” which is that root. Many rationalize wealth by pointing out all the “blessings” Solomon had or all the possessions Abraham or David enjoyed. While certainly God bestowed some people in the Bible with abundance in those areas, this in no way negates the words of Jesus in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

What if Jesus is serious about that?

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