I need to make a confession about my car: It’s a mid-range Mazda. I know, I know, a mid-range Mazda is not a big deal in Australia, the ‘lucky country.’ But mid range or not, this car was recently a source of guilt for me.
I work in aid and development, and recently, as I walked through the car park at work, I noticed that a colleague of mine, a man in a similar job but with a different organisation, owned a car much like mine. I thought to myself, “he has a similar style of car to me… I wonder if he feels as guilty about his as I do about mine?”
Because the truth is, I sometimes feel seriously bad that I don’t own a $2000 car so that I can give the rest of the money to people in poverty. But is it healthy that I feel so guilty about my possessions? Is guilt a necessary part of caring about people in poverty whilst living in an affluent, Western culture? I think the Bible has some answers to these questions.
The lady with the perfume
Think of the woman pouring the very expensive perfume over Jesus in Matthew 26 verses 6 to 16. Commentators tell us that this perfume was worth about a year’s wages (France 2007, 973). To put that amount into perspective, Mark 6 verse 37 tells us that more than half a years wages could feed 5000 people, and so in theory this bottle of perfume could feed up to 10,000 people! This was some seriously fancy smell-pretty. But instead of rebuking this lavish lass, Jesus says to his outraged disciples in verses 10 and 11,
“Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
On the surface it looks as though Jesus is justifying extravagancy, and de-emphasising helping those in poverty! But, of course, Jesus isn’t saying, “don’t worry about the poor” in this passage, because Jesus is a huge advocate of people who are impoverished all throughout His ministry (Luke 4:17-21; Luke 3:11; Luke 16:19-31 just to name but a few passages).
God’s plan for poverty alleviation
What is he saying, then? I think the answer to that question is found not in this passage, but in a passage to which it refers (in a subscript), Deuteronomy chapter 15 verse11. It says: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” In the same chapter, read also Deuteronomy chapter 15 verse 4, which says, “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.”
You see, Deuteronomy 15 explains that if humanity follows God’s commandments, there will be no poverty (verse 4). But it concludes by saying that because humanity does not do what God has prescribed, there will never cease to be some in poverty among us (verse 11). But our response to this predicament should not be to say “don’t worry about these people,” it should be to open our hand and give all the more generously to them.
What Jesus is actually doing in Matthew 26 is reminding His disciples of God’s plan for poverty alleviation. A plan that doesn’t involve selling expensive items and giving the money to the poor, but rather involves a community of believers who organize their society such that those around them who are in poverty are cared for. What God demands of His followers is justice, not charity.
So what about the guilt ridden Mazda?
So what does all this have to do with my guilty conscience regarding my car? Well, quite a bit. You see, God doesn’t expect me to sell my car and give the money to those who are in poverty. In fact, God doesn’t want Christians in general to be people who sell one large item and give the money to those in poverty, he expects us to live lives of generous giving.
He expects us to live lifestyles in which generosity to, and advocacy for, impoverished people is intrinsic.
His plan is that, rather than tossing a fifty in the plate at Easter or at Christmas, we might change our lives (and eventually our culture) such that people in poverty are consistently cared for so that, eventually, there might be no-one among us in poverty, and our culture might be like that of the fellowship of believers in Acts chapter 2 verses 42 to 47.
So the good news is Jesus doesn’t expect me to sell my mid-range Mazda, nor does he want Western Christians to feel guilty for having such belongings. But he does expect us, the ‘lucky ones’, to live a lifestyle of generosity, giving freehandedly from our abundance so that none among us might have need.
Brent Van Mourik is the Queensland State Representative for Baptist World Aid Australia and is a registered pastor with the Baptist Union of Queensland. He completed a Bachelor of Theology through Malyon College in Brisbane, where he now lives with his wife, Jane. When he isn’t advocating for the poor and oppressed, he loves having a cup of coffee and a chat. He also enjoys developing his theology of disappointment, and putting into practice Ephesians 4:26 (“In your anger do not sin”) on the golf course.
* France, R.T. 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing.