Almsgiving

“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee” (Matthew 6:1-4).

What motivates our righteousness? Love for God? Love for our fellow man? To be seen as righteous?

Jesus addressed motivation for practicing righteousness as He continues His discourse in what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Whereas Jesus introduced a new subject, and a new chapter has begun according to modern versification, His theme remained unchanged. Ever since Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus has been comparing what had been said in the Law, the standard of righteousness for the scribes and Pharisees with what He had to say, the standard of true righteousness, what would truly be necessary to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 5:21-48). The Pharisees and scribes are no less in view in Matthew 6:1-24 than they were in Matthew 5:21-48; we are to understand that they are these hypocrites who want to seem righteous (cf. Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 16:13-31).

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Jesus begun by establishing the principle: do not act righteously to be seen by people (Matthew 6:1). Such is a strong tendency of humanity; one need not travel very far to find some kind of building, park, or other facility emblazoned with the name or names of the people who contributed to it. People love to contribute to causes as long as they get some benefit, normally some publicity, so as to look good and to be seen as a positive asset for the community. It works, at least in terms of humanity; but what about before God?

Jesus applied the principle to the three main realms of what may be considered religious behavior: almsgiving (Matthew 6:2-4), prayer (Matthew 6:3-15), and fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). These three realms cover the whole of one’s service to God: righteous actions for others (almsgiving), development of relationship with God (prayer), and personal acts of devotion and spirituality (fasting). In this way it is evident that Jesus’ principle of Matthew 6:1 applies to Christianity in full. Our motivation must always be to glorify and honor God in all we do, not to be seen by others as holy and righteous.

Almsgiving was expected to be a common practice in Israel; if you had something to give, you gave it to the ill, the infirm, the disabled, the widow, and the orphan (e.g. Job 31:16-20, Isaiah 58:7-12). Such is why Jesus assumes the practice (“when you give”). The scribes and Pharisees gave as well, but when they did so, they had a trumpet blast given, either in the synagogue or on the street (Matthew 6:2).

Such seems too ridiculous to even contemplate; some believe Jesus is exaggerating, but the concept is so clear and compelling that we now speak of someone proclaiming their deeds as “trumpeting” them. These hypocrites, most likely the scribes and Pharisees, are doing their best “acting.” Their standing in society is based upon the commonly held view that they were more studious, righteous, and learned. To maintain that standing they must be seen as performing righteous acts like almsgiving.

Notice that Jesus did not say that these hypocrites internally and consciously intended to do these things to be seen by men; they no doubt justified their behavior by saying that they were doing good and doing what God commanded. No doubt God and benevolence did play into their motivations. But would they have still given those alms if no one was there to notice? Most likely not, and in this way their real intention is made known. It is more important in their minds to keep up appearances than to actually perform righteousness and care for those less fortunate.

Jesus did establish that they did receive their reward: the people continued to think of them as holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2). Yet they have no credit from God. Instead, one is to give so that their left hand does not know what their right hand is doing, and God who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:3-4).

We are again confronted with what seems to be a ludicrous situation: both the left and right hands are controlled by the brain, so how can one do anything so that one hand does not know what the other is doing? Perhaps Jesus intended for us to understand that giving should become so reflexive that we do it without having to think twice about it; then again, His whole concern has been regarding intentions with giving, and to give reflexively does not automatically mean one is giving thoughtfully and benevolently. Jesus is most likely using a potent image so that we understand His main point: our giving is to be in secret (Matthew 6:4).

Does Jesus thus condemn all public forms of giving? No more so than He condemns people seeing Christians giving to others. We do well to remember that Jesus’ primary concern is motivation: why are we doing what we are doing? Are we trying to glorify God or look pious before men? If we prove willing to give in secret, we demonstrate that our righteousness is not a show, but sincerely reflects our love for God and for our fellow man. If we only give when we will get some kind of reward or credit on earth, then our motivations are less than sincere.

We do well to stop and reflect about our motivations. Jesus makes it very clear that two people can do the exact same thing but have two very different outcomes solely on account of their motivations. What we intend informs the purpose and thus value of the act.

Needs for benevolence are no less today than then (Matthew 26:11). We do well to help those in need, especially those in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We must remember that we will receive our reward no matter what. If we give to be seen of men, then we will be seen of men, receive their commendation, but gain no standing before God. If we give to glorify God, then God will see what we do, and He who sees in secret will reward us appropriately. May we give abundantly to others so God receives all the glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Cows of Bashan

“Hear this word, ye kine of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, that oppress the poor, that crush the needy, that say unto their lords, ‘Bring, and let us drink.’
The Lord GOD hath sworn by his holiness, that, lo, the days shall come upon you, that they shall take you away with hooks, and your residue with fish-hooks. And ye shall go out at the breaches, every one straight before her; and ye shall cast yourselves into Harmon,” saith the LORD (Amos 4:1-3).

Amos does not have many kind words for those who were comfortable and wealthy in Israel. The women are no exception.

He begins by calling them “kine,” or cows, of Bashan (Amos 4:1). Bashan is in the northeastern part of Israel across the Jordan, around the Golan area today (cf. Deuteronomy 4:43), and was famous for its pastureland and timber (Jeremiah 50:14, Ezekiel 27:6, 39:18, Micah 7:14). These “cows of Bashan” actually live in Samaria, and so the reference is clearly derogatory: these women are those who “graze” upon the best of the land. It was not a pleasant reference, and it was not meant to be; women have never taken kindly to being compared with cows.

Amos’ accusation is quite specific: these women have oppressed the poor and crushed the needy while demanding more drink from their husbands (Amos 4:1). They enjoy their wealth and prosperity today, but Amos warns them about the days to come when they will be thoroughly humiliated and denigrated: every last one of them will be carried off as exiles (Amos 4:2-3). God has sworn by His holiness that it will take place; it has been firmly decreed; it will not be revoked (Amos 4:2; cf. Hebrews 6:13). Within 50 years of Amos’ prediction, it did come to pass: Assyria overran Israel, and its inhabitants were exiled to Assyria (2 Kings 17:1-41).

We do well to reflect a moment about Amos’ condemnation of the noblewomen of Samaria. He accuses them of oppressing the poor and crushing the needy, and yet it is hard to imagine that any of these women were ever out on the streets actively harming the poor or needy. They would not have engaged in business dealings, court bribery, adaptation of laws to benefit the rich and further impoverishing the poor, or other such behaviors promoting injustice and oppression. Their husbands were the ones doing so! But what was at least part of the reason behind why their husbands, the lords and nobles of Israel, behaved this way? They had the lifestyles of their wives to support; they continually demanded food, drink, and other luxurious items. Their lifestyle was supported on the backs of the poor and needy among them, and so they fall under the same condemnation as their husbands. They stand condemned for oppressing the poor and crushing the needy because they were indirect “beneficiaries” of the proceeds which came as a result of those behaviors.

Most people today are not actively, consciously, and deliberately going out to oppress the poor and crush the needy. Even if we do pass by a lot of homeless people, we might give a little something to a few that seem worthy. Most people give at least a little something to charity, even if it is some promotion at the grocery store or large retailer. Therefore, it would be very easy for most people to not take the charge of oppressing the poor or crushing the needy very seriously.

Yet Amos and his condemnation of the “cows of Bashan,” the noblewomen of Samaria, should give us pause. God does not condemn only those who actively work to oppress the poor and crush the needy, but also those who benefit or have their lifestyles financed by the oppression of the poor and the crushing of the needy! As in Israel, many times government is used by some to reinforce their advantage against others; in some cases, those whose family, friends, or tribe make up the government get the advantages to the detriment of everyone else. Yet this is not just a problem in other places: how much of our lifestyle is subsidized by cheap labor in other places? Workers in other countries are subjected to horrendous, often inhumane conditions, in order to make the products we buy at prices we feel comfortable paying. Their wages would never make it in America, and often barely make it where they live; some are imprisoned and making such products in forced labor camps; meanwhile, how many Americans have lost jobs and find themselves impoverished because their jobs were shipped overseas on account of lower labor costs? With every product there is a cost; the constant pursuit of lower prices hurts people in plenty of places. Multinational corporations exploit legal loopholes and often participate in illegal behavior if it produces sufficient profit; the stock price may go up, but people are harmed in the process. How many times have some governments or companies extracted minerals or other valuable commodities from the land, share the profits with themselves and their owners and shareholders, and disband or look away when it becomes clear that there are lots of environmental costs which are now passed along to the inhabitants of the area? Some people over the short-term made some money; generations living on that land may suffer the consequences.

The noblewomen of Samaria stood condemned for oppressing the poor and crushing the needy even though it was their husbands who actively engaged in that behavior. Their condemnation was secured because they were the beneficiaries of the immoral and unjust behavior. God judged them speedily; they did not escape. We live in a different time and under a different covenant, but God has no less concern for the poor, disadvantaged, and needy (Matthew 25:31-46, James 2:1-7, 5:1-6). If we indirectly benefit from oppressive behavior, will we escape the same punishment? Let us stand against oppression and injustice in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, and seek the welfare of all people, near and far, and live in such a way that our lifestyles are not sustained to the detriment of the poor or needy in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Winners and Losers

And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

It is a theme which plays out daily in sporting venues across the country. One team gains the victory: its players are jubilant and their fans celebrate. The cameras focus on the pleasant scene. Whether the game was close or a blowout, whether it was played well or poorly, the story is written to describe their great victory. Meanwhile, the other team has lost. They may quickly pay their respects to the winning team and head back to the locker room. Their fans silently file out of the stadium. Their story will not be remembered positively or on its own terms, but only either as a foil to magnify the victory of the winners or as some sort of testament to their failure or ineptitude. These tendencies are only magnified during playoff and championship seasons; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are both magnified the closer the teams get to the ultimate championship. The future is kind to the winners: they receive, if nothing else, grudging respect for their accomplishments. History is not kind to the losers: just ask the Chicago Cubs and their fans.

Such winning and losing is not confined to the world of sports. Governments and politics frequently feature winners and losers. A leader may win an election by a lot or a little, but once they have won, they have some room to set the agenda, and the story of the election is written to describe their victory. The one who lost the election recedes in view to some degree, having perhaps even come close to obtaining power, but now the story is written to describe their failings and ultimate failure. The winners get remembered; the losers, again, are either forgotten or remembered as a foil or for their failures. At least in most electoral situations the loser is able to continue to live and pursue success in other ventures: history is full of stories of leaders losing their power by losing their lives. The victors then write the story to elevate their triumph and to justify their behavior. The loser, silent in the grave, loses even greater face: consider Richard III of England.

Winning and losing is a natural part of life “under the sun.” While there may be some circumstances in which it can be said, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that is, that certain improvements lead to the betterment of everyone, in general, for some to succeed, others must fail. New technologies may provide new opportunities and jobs, yet they will likely replace older technologies and the jobs of those who used them. Globalization has led to the creation of many jobs in foreign nations, allowing them to develop and improve, but has also led to the loss of many jobs in America and other first world nations. At times, the economy grows, job opportunities increase, and many people are able to succeed and prosper; at other times, the economy contracts, job opportunities decline, and many people suffer. Some years bring good crop yields and farmers prosper; other years bring drought and perhaps even famine and farmers go under. A few people are born into a prosperous family and they succeed whether they are competent or not; others are born into far less prosperous circumstances and can never seem to get ahead.

This all seems decidedly unfair, and many people throughout time have attempted to “fix” it. Yet every social experiment to attempt to eliminate such inequality and allow everyone to be equally successful has ended in failure. Reality is far more like the World Cup than pee-wee soccer: there will be winners and there will be losers. Sometimes winners win and losers lose because the former were more talented and executed better than the latter. Sometimes the winners win despite a lack of talent or sloppy execution. Sometimes the losers “deserve” to win or “deserve” to lose. We may not be happy with this situation, but it represents the reality in which we live.

God recognizes this. He has warned us that success is not automatic, and many times those who “should” succeed do not (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Meanwhile, success and victory is not inherently a problem: God has given mankind many good things which they should enjoy, and all should seek to find contentment in their circumstances (Ecclesiastes 8:15, 1 Timothy 4:4, 6:6-8). The big question, however, involves how the “winners” treat the “losers.”

In fact, the best way to understand the character of a person, a team, or even a culture or a nation is how they treat the “losers.” Do they boast over the losers and relish their victory? Do they prove willing to resort to oppression and dishonorable and unethical conduct in order to maintain their advantage over the “losers”? Or do they seek to respect and honor those whom have not been as successful for their endeavors and effort and seek to provide benefits to them?

We do well to remember that God has always sought to make special provision for the “losers” in society. He redeemed Israel while they were lowly and oppressed as slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:7-10). Under the old covenant He commanded Israel to observe the Jubilee, a restoration of property to its original owners and a remission of debt, so that each generation would be able to make a fresh start if their conditions had deteriorated (cf. Leviticus 25:1-55). The Israelites were not to gather every last bit of crops from their fields and vines, but leave some gleanings for the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow (cf. Leviticus 19:10, Deuteronomy 24:21).

Yet those in Israel who were successful did not honor God’s intentions to provide for the “losers”. The prophets condemn the Israelites for their oppression of the poor and their corruption of justice (e.g. Isaiah 5:7-8, 20-23, Amos 4:1). For these and other transgressions of His will God cast Israel out of its land so that they all would understand what it was like to be the “loser.”

Throughout His life Jesus identified Himself with the “losers” of society: the poor, the marginalized, even eating with sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13). During His gestation His mother proclaimed how God humbled princes and exalted those of low estate, filling the hungry while sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-52). He pronounced blessings on those who had “lost”: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, among others (Matthew 5:3-11). His closest followers were not members of the society’s élite but represented a rag-tag group of fishermen, a tax-collector, a political revolutionary, and other “common, unlearned” men (cf. Matthew 4:18-22, 9:9, 10:2-4, Acts 4:13). At the moment of His death it would have been quite easy to consider Jesus as a “loser” and a failure: He stood up to the religious authorities of the day and they seemed to have prevailed through the exercise of the imperial power which they otherwise could not stand. He was dead and His followers dispersed in distress. Perhaps He had saved others, but, so it seemed, He could not save Himself (cf. Matthew 27:41-42).

Yet, on the third day, God raised this Jesus from the dead, and after His ascension, He was given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:1-20). Jesus had not failed, nor was He a “loser,” because of His death; instead, through His death and resurrection, He proved successful and victorious over the power of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2). Jesus, who had died, is now Lord and Christ!

Jesus still identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and those who have “lost” in various ways in the game of life. This is why His description of the judgment scene to come in Matthew 25:31-46 should give us pause. We can only gain the victory if we have been of assistance to those who have “lost.” The ones who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited those imprisoned or ill obtain eternal life; those who did not do such things go away into perdition. How Jesus describes this situation is especially relevant: He tells those who have done the right that they fed Him when He was hungry, gave Him drink when He was thirsty, clothed Him when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick or in prison (Matthew 25:34-35). When they want to know when or how they did so, He responds by telling them that as they had done it for the “least of these my brethren,” they did so to Him (Matthew 25:37-40). When you help the “losers,” the poor, oppressed, and/or marginalized, you help Jesus; when you dismiss or abuse them, you dismiss or abuse Jesus.

God has no intention of “penalizing” success: it is good to prosper. But God wants everyone who prospers to remember that because of their prosperity others have likely been less successful and are in a poor condition. Success does not mean that the victorious or successful person is any better or more valuable in the sight of God than the “loser” or unsuccessful person: they are all children of God the Father, and He cares for them all (Luke 6:35, Acts 17:24-28). Instead, success is to be considered as a responsibility or trust: you have been given blessings so that you can provide blessings and benefits to others, to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28, 1 Timothy 6:17-19). But let none be deceived: God identifies with those who are poor, marginalized, and in distress, the “losers” of society, and He hears their cry (cf. James 5:3-4). It is up to us: will we be gracious winners or sore winners? Will we identify with those with whom God in Christ identifies, and seek to provide assistance to those who have “lost” in various ways in the “game” of life? Let us seek to do good to those who are in need, always remembering that we are all equal in God’s sight and that today’s winner might become tomorrow’s loser, and glorify and honor the God who cares for all mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Being Abased

I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want (Philippians 4:12).

Apocalyptic scenarios seem to fascinate us. There is never a lack of television shows that describe, often in gruesome detail, the various ways in which our lives may end as we know them. Most of us must confess that we have watched one or more of these shows at times. It is one thing to think about such situations in the abstract while we maintain our comfortable existence. But what if one or more such scenario actually came to pass?

Unfortunately, many have recently been faced with an apocalyptic scenario in life– their homes ravaged by earthquake, tornado, flood, or fire, and in a moment, everything is gone. If the disaster itself was not bad enough, then there is the aftermath– days, perhaps weeks, dependent on outside organizations for food, shelter, and other necessities of life in the worst cases. Sadly, such people learned what it meant to be abased on account of the disaster, if they had not already learned that lesson before because of other circumstances.

Living in bounty is relatively easy; most of us, most of the time, are filled and abound. In fact, not a few of us are probably too filled and abound a bit too much! But what would happen to us if we ourselves experienced immediate humiliation?

Imagine, for example, that the power goes out. It goes out where you live, where all of your friends and family live– in fact, the power has gone out across the nation. And the power does not come back on for years. What then? Pretty much everything we have grown to depend upon is based on electricity and computerized systems. Where would we find the basic necessities of existence? How would we cope if all of our comforts and luxuries vanished in a moment?

How do you think people would respond to such a disaster? How many people would blame God, wondering how He could allow such a terrible thing to happen to us? While such is a natural and understandable response to the calamity, let us think soberly for a moment. Where did God ever promise us a nice, comfortable existence featuring all the benefits of the modern world with its electricity and technology? Everyone in the Bible lived without them. Nevertheless, how many today, in such a situation, would still find fault?

If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that being abased in such a way would be a bitter pill to swallow. While it would most likely be the end of our lives as we knew them, would it be the end of the world? Would it still not be true that God has given us the gifts of this creation, our lives, and all the spiritual blessings He provides in Christ (John 1:1-3, Ephesians 1:3)? God would remain good, even in such difficult circumstances for us. Such a calamity might force us to relearn what it means to depend on one another and cooperate with one another so that we can survive!

If you are still reading this, it means that the electricity is still on, our technologically advanced lives continue, and we still live in relative comfort. Odds are still strong that the electricity will stay on until the Lord returns. And I hope that we do not miss the point because of the example– there are innumerable ways that we may find ourselves abased in this life, and we have only mentioned a few calamitous ones. Yet we do so in order to force us to think about how we would respond and react to being abased. Can we still maintain our faith and hope in God even if we find ourselves humbled and in want? Can we still bless and glorify His name even if we find ourselves in distressing circumstances? May we all grow in faith so as to praise and glorify God no matter what circumstances may be in which we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

And seeing the multitudes, [Jesus] went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:1-3).

Jesus’ ministry had begun, and His renown had spread far and wide. Matthew had been speaking in generalities about Jesus’ preaching the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and how He healed the sick and cast out demons (Matthew 4:23-24). Multitudes began to follow Him (Matthew 4:25), and Jesus felt it was time to systematically proclaim His message to them. He climbs up a mountain, most likely to provide for better acoustics, and begins teaching His disciples and the multitudes as well (Matthew 5:1-2). So begins what we popularly call the “Sermon on the Mount.”

The “Sermon on the Mount” begin with what are popularly called the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, since verses 3 through 11 begin with the Greek word makarios, meaning “blessed” or “happy.”

Yet this is not your average list of blessings. This is how Jesus begins this particular example of preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and that good news was quite different than anything the Jews had heard before.

The first group of people who are “blessed,” or happy or fortunate, are the “poor in spirit.” Jesus says that they are fortunate because the Kingdom of Heaven is “theirs” (Matthew 5:3).

There is some disagreement about Jesus’ emphasis in Matthew 5:3, whether poor in spirit is a categorical way of speaking about the poor in general or whether the emphasis is on the poverty in spirit and not poverty in general.

If the emphasis is on the poor in spirit, Jesus is addressing the value of humility and the realization that, on their own, people do not have a lot of spiritual strength on which to draw. Jesus will frequently paint a dire picture of man’s natural condition: full of daily anxieties (Matthew 6:25-34), without proper spiritual direction (Matthew 9:36), heavily burdened (Matthew 11:28-30), and in great debt (Matthew 18:23-35). While that is distressing enough, the difficulties are compounded when people deceive themselves into thinking that despite such challenges they are really spiritually healthy and strong, like the Pharisees and other religious authorities (cf. Matthew 9:10-13). They will not be blessed, but those who understand their true sinful condition– that they are sick– are more likely to turn to the Physician and be made well (Matthew 9:10-13). Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who understand that they are poor in spirit and are in need of healing and strength from God in Christ, and until people come to that realization, there is not much that Jesus can do for them (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:5, Philippians 4:15)!

While all of that is true, Jesus may use the phrase poor in spirit to refer to the “pious poor,” those who remain devoted to God despite not having many material blessings. In what is called the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6:20-49, a message very similar to the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus there says that “the poor” are blessed without adding “in spirit” (Luke 6:20). We can find many examples in both testaments of such people– the widow of Mark 12:41-44, and the Psalms are often written with the poor in mind (cf. Psalm 34:6, 40:17, 69:29).

In the first century, this would be a startling statement indeed! For generations, conventional wisdom associated blessedness with wealth and prosperity. This was a message reinforced in the Proverbs– wealth came to those who worked hard and lived righteously, while poverty was an indication of idleness or wickedness or both (e.g. Proverbs 10:4, 15). Granted, the author of Proverbs says that the rich should not despise the poor but should take care of them (e.g. Proverb 14:21, 31), but the prophets indicate that oppression of the poor was commonplace in Israel (Isaiah 3:14, 10:1-2, Jeremiah 2:34, Ezekiel 22:29, etc.).

Conventional wisdom reduced everything into a deceptively simple paradigm: if you were rich and prosperous, you were blessed, and since God is the Giver of all good things, you are blessed before God. If you are poor, you are clearly deficient in blessings, and since God is not providing those blessings to you, it must be on account of your sin. It might be that some people are poor by no fault of their own, but even then, they are to be objects of pity; no one would ever consider people in such a condition fortunate or blessed. Jesus turns this conventional wisdom upside down.

According to the Gospel of the Kingdom, the poor are the ones who are blessed, while the rich are the ones who ought to mourn (Luke 6:24, James 5:1-6). While this reversal seems bizarre to people in the world, now as then, it makes perfect sense in terms of the Gospel of the Kingdom, where what is humble is exalted, and what has been exalted is humbled (cf. Matthew 23:12, etc.).

But how can poverty really be a fortunate state? Most of the time, those who are poor would desperately love to escape from poverty! What could be so romantic about poverty?

It is not as if Jesus is glorifying poverty in and of itself; after all, one can be poor, embittered against God and man, and be exceedingly sinful. The poor do not get an automatic pass into the resurrection of the just.

Yet poverty is a great teacher– it strips man of many of his delusions. When one is poor and dependent on the goodwill of others for continued existence, one cannot be deceived into thinking oneself truly independent, truly without any kind of accountability, or self-sufficient in any way. It is very hard to maintain pride in the face of poverty; it is a very humiliating experience to have to beg or to constantly be reminded of how one is deprived of the world’s goods (cf. James 1:9). Poverty easily strips man of his pretension and pride– and that is the first step toward realizing how one is really dependent on God His Creator and why he must serve Him!

Such is why Jesus can say that the poor in spirit are blessed, for the Kingdom belongs to them– they are of the right disposition to hear, accept, and obey the Gospel of the Kingdom. They will comprise the bulk of the first century church (cf. James 2:1-9)!

We do well to remember this lesson. Most of us enjoy relative prosperity. Many of us are not rich according to American standards, but according to the standard of the entire world, and especially according to the standard of the first century, we are all quite wealthy!

We must not allow our relative wealth, prosperity, and ease keep us from the Kingdom of God. We must not, as so many do, believe that we are fine and spiritually healthy because things are going well for us. We must understand that we are pathetically weak on our own and utterly dependent on the mercy of God not only for our survival but also for our prosperity. We must humble ourselves before God so that He will exalt us at the proper time, lest we exalt ourselves now and be humbled by Him (cf. 1 Peter 5:5-6)!

Fortunate are those who learn humility and who remain dependent on God. Let us pursue such blessedness and serve the Risen Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Morality Turned Upside Down

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

Does it ever seem like the idea of morality has become a joke? It seems like one’s social and economic stature determines what is moral. With enough clout and money, it seems, one could get away with anything– even murder at times! The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and no one seems to care. As the wealthy consolidate power thanks to their resources, the situation seems all but hopeless. Either you are rich, and the land is your oyster, or you are poor, and you serve the rich in many ways. If you are poor, the slightest infraction might be your doom; if you have enough resources, you can get your way out of anything.

Does that sound familiar? Many might think that such is true today. It was also quite true of the days of Isaiah. Those with wealth could live with impunity. They could squeeze out the small farmer, bribe any judicial figures, and feast away with the king and others (cf. Isaiah 5:18-24). The poor man was forced to bear all of this. If he had to be sold into debt slavery, so be it; such meant little to the wealthy landowner. They had the luxury of choosing which laws to favor and which laws to neglect. They could call light darkness and darkness light, and mock the expectations of God for equity in dealing with all people.

Isaiah would not stand for this. He proclaimed the message of God’s disfavor with the actions of the rich and influential. He predicted their doom at the hands of first Assyria and then Babylon. They would receive their comeuppance– eventually. Woe, indeed, to them.

While the challenges of today are not as based on income as they were in days past, there is still the sense that the rich and powerful can get away with pretty much everything. If a “regular Joe” steals something, he has a quick trial and goes to prison in a pretty bad environment. If the wealthy extort or embezzle, which is theft, and happen to get caught, and happen to go to trial, and happen to get sentenced, and actually have to serve time, it tends to be in a far more cushy environment– if it ever ended in imprisonment. Different standards abound to this day!

Challenges with morality are not limited to the upper class; everyone has their sins (Romans 3:23). These days, however, the idea of “sin” is on the out. Many believe that “sin” is an artificial construct, an invention of authorities attempting to keep the people down. Things that God has declared to be sinful are re-named to seem less harmful. Arguments are made to appeal to the heart-strings in a misguided attempt to show compassion to that which is, in reality, sinful. And those who dare declare what God has said are labeled “intolerant,” “bigoted,” “narrow-minded,” or “old-fashioned.”

There is little doubt that the Israelites of Isaiah’s day could have done similar things. Idolatry was just “a different theological choice.” Bribes were just “ways to get things done.” Isaiah, no doubt, was considered intolerant, narrow-minded, perhaps even fundamentalistic, a dangerous religious zealot, for declaring the will of the Lord.

Our time is not as “enlightened” as its participants would imagine. As long as there have been people in sin there have been people who have been trying to find ways to justify their sins and demonize anyone who would challenge their justifications. There have always been people who want to bend the rules to their own favor and find any way possible in which to do so. Many will do what they want to do no matter what anyone tells them. The human capacity for self-justification is almost unimaginable in its depth.

Yet, as in Isaiah’s proclamation, so with today. Comeuppance will come, eventually, to such people. Justice may be served in their own lifetimes; it will surely be served on the final day (Acts 17:30-31). God’s patience and longsuffering toward people, hoping for their repentance (2 Peter 3:9), will not last forever, and many will learn the true cost of calling evil good and good evil; of declaring bitter sweet and sweet bitter; of loving the darkness and hating the light.

Believers in God often feel distressed by all of this, and it is understandable. It is much harder to strive to live as God would have us live when it is reviled as being the opposite of what it truly is– the way of life, light, and peace (John 8:12, Romans 8:6). Yet believers should take comfort in knowing that this has been the way people have been acting for centuries; it is not a purely modern phenomenon. It will continue until the Lord returns. It is not fair, it is difficult, and sometimes we get penalized for it. But we know who will ultimately reward the righteous and condemn the wicked (1 Peter 4:12-19). Let us stand for what is just, right, true, and holy, no matter what it is called or how others may abuse us, and receive the ultimate reward in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mary and Her Ointment

But there were some that had indignation among themselves, saying, “To what purpose hath this waste of the ointment been made? For this ointment might have been sold for above three hundred shillings, and given to the poor.”
And they murmured against her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor always with you, and whensoever ye will ye can do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could; she hath anointed my body beforehand for the burying” (Mark 14:4-8).

Mary sought to honor her Lord. He had, after all, just raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45, 12:1-3). She felt it was appropriate to bring out this very expensive ointment– the “spikenard”– worth more than three hundred denarii, or over six thousand dollars in buying power today. This is a staggering sum even today!

This “waste” was acutely felt by some of the disciples. Granted, Judas’ motivations about his indignation are suspect, as John 12:4-6 indicates, but we have no reason to believe that the indignation of some of the other disciples was likewise suspect. They had been used to a life of relative poverty while following Jesus, and this entire episode seemed entirely out of place for Jesus considering His mission, purpose, and method (cf. Matthew 8:20, 20:25-28).

The sentiment of some of the disciples had some basis in nobility– after all, even today, $6,000 would go a long way in helping people who have nothing. The impulse to take such a “luxury” and use the proceeds to help the poor is not a bad thing, and Jesus does not censure that impulse. What matters is the timing.

Thus He tells His disciples that they will always have the opportunity to help the poor, but they will not always be able to enjoy His physical presence. The idea that the “poor are always with you” is not license to neglect the poor or to give up any endeavor that attempts to provide benefits for the poor. Instead, Jesus is justifying this particular “extravagant waste,” pointing out that the poor will remain, but He will not always be with them.

Mary is most likely unaware of the significance of what she is doing. What she does in honor as a good work is really a preparation for burial. Since He will die just before the Sabbath– a high Sabbath at that– there will not be proper time for anointing the body (cf. Mark 15:42-46). Three women will bring ointment with which to anoint the body of Jesus on the first day of the week, but by then He will be raised from the dead (Mark 16:1). Thus, the only anointment of His body for death came here, in the house of Simon the leper, by the hand of Mary.

This is a poignant story, and Jesus’ testimony about how the story of Mary and the anointing will be proclaimed wherever the Gospel is proclaimed demonstrates His great confidence in the plan of God that is unfolding (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). And so it is; almost two thousand years later and halfway across the world we now consider her story and the good work that she did for Jesus.

It is very easy for anyone to get so thoroughly invested in a cause that they begin to neglect themselves and their own souls. Yes, we are called to serve and not be served, just as Jesus did (Matthew 20:25-28). But even Jesus accepted this anointing. He not only allowed Mary to do her good work, He blessed it and its memory. It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), but if no one receives, no one can give!

This is not license for selfishness, but a good reminder for us to accept the good works of others on our behalf, and seek to be the examples we should be. Let us serve God wholeheartedly, doing good works and accepting good works, and reflect our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry