I want to say a few good words about rich people.
We’ve just come through a far too long election season in which the wealthy took a pretty good beating. Gov. Romney was perhaps the wealthiest man who ever ran for president. Make no mistake: he was from a wealthy and powerful family. But even though he started out with many advantages, he also made the most of what he had.
I admire the fact that he left Stanford University and spent 2 years as a missionary for his church. He went on to earn both a business and a law degree from Harvard and then took several small businesses and made them profitable. Yet, during the campaign for the presidency, he was portrayed as a “heartless capitalist” who laid off workers left and right. Unfortunately, that is what capitalism does. The economist Friedrich Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction.” The old has to be destroyed to make way for the new.
There is no doubt that Gov. Romney is a generous man. He gives ten percent of his income to his church, and everything I have read about him leads me to believe that he is genuinely kind and generous to others.
No church can exist for long without people such as Gov. Romney. The oil tycoon, John D. Rockefeller, was a devout Baptist who taught a Sunday school class for most of his life. He built the Riverside Church on the upper west side of Manhattan and also underwrote much of the cost of building Union Theological Seminary. And we could go on and on naming the wealthy and powerful who have been generous to churches and good causes.
Jesus lived in a pre-capitalist world. In Jesus’ world, there were no investment banks and stock markets. People hoarded their wealth. They kept their gold and silver in safe and secret places.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
What a contrast! On the one hand, the people Jesus condemns love to wear long robes, clothes that set them apart, that establish their superior status. They also love to say long prayers. I guess Jesus was talking about people like me, because Episcopal priest seem to like to wear elaborate vestments and say the longest prayers we can find.
Do you know the story of the minister who thought he had been invited to give a speech to the Rotary club but discovered when he arrived that he was just supposed to give the invocation. So he began, “Oh, Lord, we thank thee for this food, and by the way, hast thou heard this anecdote?”
But how can people who pray also devour widows’ houses? To say the least, it’s incongruous.
The phrase “they devour widows’ houses” may refer to the fact that in the ancient world the wealthy sometimes loaned money at exorbitant rates of anywhere from 24 to 48 percent, and someone who fell behind on their payments could very easily lose their house. Widows were especially vulnerable, because they had no way to earn a living.
It’s interesting to note that the Council of Nicea in the year 325 forbade clergy from engaging in usury, that is the making of loans at exorbitant rates. Apparently, they had forgotten about Jesus’ warning against the “scribes… who devour widows’ houses.”
In today’s gospel reading Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples “watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.” But rather than commend the wealthy for their generosity, Jesus compares them unfavorably with the widow who gives two small coins. “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
The difference, of course, is about the ratio between what each one gave compared to what each one had to give. To put it in modern terms, the person who has ten dollars and gives one is comparatively more generous than the person with a million dollars who gives a thousand.
But I wish Jesus had extended his remarks just a little. I wish he had given the wealthy some positive reinforcement instead of such harsh criticism. I wish he had said, “You gave a thousand dollars? That’s great. Good for you! But look at your neighbor – the widow who lives next door. All she has to live on is a monthly social security check. But she gives ten percent of that check to the church every month. Don’t you think you could give as big a percentage of your income as she does?”
It’s interesting to note that the story of the poor widow who contributes all that she has is found in Luke’s gospel but not in Matthew’s. Luke is also quite hard on the wealthy. It is Luke who records Mary’s song, the Magnificat: “God has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
I think one of the reasons that Mark tells this story the way that he does is that from beginning to end Mark portrays following Jesus as a matter of life and death. In Mark, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms to take up our cross and follow him. He tells the rich young man to sell everything he has and give the money to the power. When someone comes to Jesus and says, I want to follow you but first I must go and bury my father, Jesus tells him to let the dead bury the dead. Mark’s gospel presents us with a stark choice: Leave everything and follow Christ. There can be no compromise.
The Anglican New Testament scholar Austin Farrer said that Mark can be summarized in three statements: “God gives you everything. Give everything to God. You can’t.”
“God gives you everything. Give everything to God. You can’t.”
We can’t give everything back to God. We can’t even give half of what we have back to God. That’s partly because God expects us not only to be generous but also responsible. We have families to care for. But more importantly, we are also fallen and finite.
St. Augustine said that the human heart is curvatus in se, that is, curved in upon itself. We are all self-centered.
Actually, Austin Farrer said that there is a fourth statement in Mark’s gospel: “Christ has risen from the dead and will make you able to give everything to God.”
The Christian life is a process of letting God straighten out our hearts. God hammers upon that curve in our hearts with the hammer of grace, sometimes gently and sometimes harshly.
God is the source of our life, our grace, our riches. Whether we are rich or poor, every single one of us gives out of poverty, for we stand before God with empty hands and hearts, beseeching him to fill us. And it is out of THAT abundance, that God invites us to give to others.