May 26

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Mark 14:1-11; Galatians 4:1-20; Psalm 115; 2 Samuel 23-24

The anointing of Jesus in Mark 14:1-11 raises unsettling questions about how to balance our giving to the poor with other expenditures on God. The woman seems to waste the expensive perfume, worth about a year’s wage. Down through history, majestic buildings and inspiring artworks have been commissioned for the glory of God—and funded at the expense of relieving the poor (and sometimes by extorting rich and poor). Does Jesus here give some justification for those choices? Can we turn away from the poor, whom we will always have with us, to spend large amounts of money on God’s buildings and events?

A more careful examination of the passage will reveal problems with that interpretation. The gospel of Mark is coming to its conclusion where Jesus is to be revealed as the Messiah. This passage highlights contrasting reactions to Jesus. The priests and scribes seek to kill Jesus (vv. 1-2), and Judas resolves to betray him (vv. 10-11). In contrast, the woman sees that Jesus is one to be anointed. Whether she understands that she is anointing him as king, or preparing him for burial, Jesus declares that she has done a beautiful thing (v. 6). Like the poor widow who gave the copper coins, she has given everything she has (Mark 12:41-44). She demonstrates in the only way available to her that her devotion to Jesus is complete. Knowing Jesus should lead us to devote all we have to him and his concerns.

What about Jesus’ statement about the poor? Does he justify a lack of involvement in taking care of their needs? Jesus is quoting an Old Testament passage which states that the poor will always be in the land (Deuteronomy 15:11). The second half of the verse states: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Even in Mark, Jesus reminds people that they could help the poor any time they wanted. The fact that some people are poor should lead to generosity. Just before the Deuteronomy command (in 15:4-5), the Israelites were told that poverty would not exist in Israel—if only they would obey God’s commandments. Jesus reminds his listeners that poverty often exists because of human choices. One estimate reports that Christians worldwide donate $17 billion to charity—less than 2 percent of their combined income of $10 trillion. With that rate of giving, the poor certainly will remain with us for a long time.

This point of this passage is not how to balance giving to the poor with spending on church buildings and worship services. This story focuses on people’s heart attitudes and their devotion to the person of Jesus. The woman is fully committed to Jesus and gives him all she has. The disciples’ reaction to her ‘waste’ points to their lack of understanding. They still want to be careful about committing everything to Jesus. But if he is who he says he is, we should not hold back from him. And if we follow him, we should become very committed to helping the poor, even though we may never be able to remove all poverty. Having the poor with us should not lead us to avoid doing what we can to help them. We will not follow the Lord perfectly, but our goal should be to improve day by day.

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