This morning we return again to the theme of money. In January, we asked what money is, and then thought about how we get money and how we spend it. Today’s sermon is entitled “no money”. We’re going to be thinking about the theme of wealth and poverty.
The Bible recognises that poverty is a reality. Many cultures look down on the poor, and see them as somehow less important. The Bible never does that. It is refreshingly counter-cultural. No matter how much money someone has, or doesn’t have, they are a human being made in God’s image. We all have equal value.
Indeed, we could go further, and say that God favours the poor; he has a special concern for them, and wants us to do the same.
God of the poor
Don’t turn to it, but here are some verses from Deuteronomy chapter 10: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”
The New Testament says the same thing, that God favours the poor. In James chapter 2, James pictures a church meeting. Two people arrive. A rich man in fine clothing, nicknamed gold-finger, and a poor man in shabby clothes. If the rich man is offered the best seat in the house, and the poor man is often a place on the floor, James says that church has just denied the Christian gospel.
If anything, the poor have a special place in God’s heart. The message of Christianity is that we are all poor before God, spiritually bankrupt. But Jesus left the riches of heaven to come to earth. He died to save us. And now by God’s grace we can have the eternal life that we could never have earned for ourselves. Jesus came to show kindness to the spiritually poor, and he particularly has his eye on the materially poor as he does so. And God calls us to do the same.
We could end this morning’s sermon there. God cares for the poor. And so should we.
But the Bible has much more to say than that, and we need to get our bearings straight. Poverty is such a massive issue. What are our priorities? Who is responsible for what? We can only dip our toe in the water in the short time we have, but let me say three things.
Being poor is not the worst possible thing.
First, being poor is not the worst possible thing. Being poor is not the worst possible thing.
Please turn to Proverbs chapter 30. It’s on page 667. Verses 7 to 9: “Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.”
Being poor is dangerous. We might be tempted to steal, to get what we need by illegitimate means, which would dishonour God’s name. But being rich is dangerous too. We might be tempted to forget God, and live with the attitude that we can look after ourselves.
What’s behind this wisdom is the assumption that the most important thing in life is how we relate to God. Wealth and poverty both come with particular temptations that might lead us away from God. So the wise course of action, says the writer of Proverbs, is to aim to have just enough.
At this point, I could illustrate this by telling you the story of goldilocks and the three bears. Not the bed that’s too small, nor the one that’s too large, but the one that’s just right. Not porridge that’s too hot, not porridge that’s too cool, but the one that’s just right. But I take it you don’t need me to do that.
Again, the letter of James says much the same thing. In chapter 1, he encourages us to keep living for God, through all the trials of life. And then he zeroes in on the two most common trials that we might face, the trial of being rich and the trial of being poor.
There is something worse than being poor, and that is to be far from God. Indeed, when we take the long-term view, the Christian message is very good news indeed to those who are poor. Our problem is that we consider too small a timescale.
In his first letter, Peter says that God has a wonderful inheritance in heaven for all of God’s people. It’s absolutely certain, and provided we trust Jesus, it is ours when he returns. On that day, everyone who loves and follows him will begin the best, the richest life imaginable. Some people have to endure appalling hardships –desperately hard up for the whole of their life on earth. But that is nothing compared to the hardship of missing out on God’s riches for all of eternity.
If being rich, or being poor, leads you away from the person of Jesus, then zoom out to the biggest timescale. You risk losing real riches for ever.
Being poor is not the worst possible thing.
Helping the poor is the responsibility of the family
Second, helping the poor is the responsibility of the family. Helping the poor is the responsibility of the family.
Please turn to 1 Timothy chapter 5. Page 1193. This is an interesting chapter. It describes how the church in Ephesus should set up a list of widows. In the ancient world, the two groups most likely to be poor were orphans and widows. They had no one to provide for them. So the Christian church would set up a list of people who needed their financial help. It was a practice that went back to the earliest days of the church. Acts chapter 5 is about a problem that arose as the church distributed food each day to its widows.
Here is the trouble: the church can’t help everyone. And so we get verse 16: “If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.”
If a widow had family who could look after her, then the family should do exactly that. Why? Because of verse 8: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
The 10 commandments tell us to honour our father and mother, and Jesus crossed swords with the Pharisees when they tried to wriggle out of that requirement. God wants us to care for our families. So if a Christian has someone in their immediate family, or even their wider family, who is in need – then they should help. And if they don’t, they are not living like a Christian.
That then leaves the church free to look after those who really do have no-one else to help them. Because the church is also a family. It is God’s family. That’s 1 Timothy chapter 3, verse 15.
Helping the poor is the responsibility of the family. Our biological families first of all. But also the church family.
Now, clearly that isn’t all there is to say about helping the poor. We live in a global village these days, so we are much more aware of poverty in far-flung corners of the world than used to be the case. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care for the poor in other parts of the world. And I’m certainly not saying that we should only help the poor if they are Christians. But they say that charity begins at home. It would be shameful if we neglected the poor in our own families and in our church, even if our excuse was that we were helping relieve poverty the other side of the world.
Before we leave this topic, let me remind us of the parable of the sheep and the goats – it’s in Matthew 25 is you want to look later. It describes Jesus at the final judgement. As the righteous are welcomed into glory, they hear the evidence that proves they are true followers of Jesus. When Jesus was hungry, thirsty, needing clothing, they met his needs. Jesus’ followers are aghast – when did they do those things. And Jesus says this: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” He’s pointing at the other sheep who are there. They are family. They are Jesus’ family. And when we show them such kindness, Jesus takes it as kindness shown to him.
Helping the poor is the responsibility of the family.
Loving Jesus matters more than helping the poor.
And he is the third thing we need to say: Loving Jesus matters more than helping the poor. Loving Jesus matters more than helping the poor.
Finally, we get to today’s reading! John chapter 12, page 1079. It’s one week before Jesus will die. He is at a dinner in the home of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Mary takes a pint of very expensive perfume and pours it over Jesus’s feet. She then uses her hair is a towel.
Judas protests. This was an extravagant waste of money. That perfume was worth about ten grand. The money could have been given to the poor rather than poured over Jesus’s feet. John then explains that Judas did not care about the poor but only about himself. He used to put his hand in the till, and had just lost an opportunity to have the till topped up.
But the striking thing is what Jesus says next. Verse 7: “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Jesus is claiming something absolutely extraordinary. He claims a higher priority on Mary’s care, love, devotion – than the poor. Part of that can be explained in the timing. She was in a unique position. Jesus was about to die, so she had the opportunity to do something costly and yet very appropriate.
Yet this does not fully explain what Jesus says to Mary. she had a unique opportunity to live out the astronomical devotion she had for him. But regardless of the opportunity she had, Jesus is still saying she was right to be more devoted to him then she was to caring for the poor. If Jesus were merely a human being, this would be the most arrogant, the most heartless thing that Jesus could have said. But he isn’t. He was God on earth, and therefore deserved every bit of the love and devotion that Mary showed him.
Please don’t misunderstand this. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care for the poor, because we love Jesus instead. We’ve already seen several Bible passages that stop us from saying that. Jesus wants us to care for the poor. According to 1 Timothy chapter 5, if we don’t, we are worse than an unbeliever. According to the sheep and the goats, if we don’t then our claim to be followers of Jesus has nothing to back it up.
If we love Jesus, we will care for the poor. But this does challenge our priorities. We need to look after the needy, because of our love for Jesus, and not because they matter more to us than Jesus. In fact, loving Jesus is the spring from which bursts the fountain that is our care for others. If you find that you’re a bit cold-hearted towards those who are in need, the antidote is to love Jesus more. As we do that, we will find that we start to share his heart for the poor.
Loving Jesus matters more than helping the poor.
I don’t know whether you see yourself as rich or poor.
However you see yourself, the single most important thing is that you love and follow the Lord Jesus. That matters more than whether you are rich or poor. Once you do that, you are rich indeed. And from that place, we ask God to give us contentment whatever our circumstances.
And then from there, we show kindness and help to those who are more needy than we are – especially in our families, and in our church family.