We live in a religious society. Houses of worship dot the landscape. Televangelists fill the airwaves. Preachers’ books make the bestseller lists. How can we keep from drowning in this sea of spirituality? How do we discern the difference between what’s healthy and unhealthy?
Jesus gives examples of true and false religion in Mark 12:38-44. On the one hand there’s the scribes—showy and self-seeking religious professionals who oppressed the poor. In the quaint language of the King James Bible they “devour widows’ houses,” cheating them out of house and home. Such hypocrites, Jesus says, “shall receive greater damnation” (40).
Contrast those strutting like peacocks and wearing religion on their sleeves with the poor widow woman. They were rich, male, and socially well connected, yet they rapaciously took from those who had little. The opposite is a poor, marginalized and vulnerable female, who, despite her poverty, gave extravagantly to the point of giving away everything she had.
It’s easy to wag a finger at the scribes. It’s harder to follow the widow’s example. I stumble over that last bit: she gave all that she had. That’s what the Rich Young Ruler was unwilling to do to inherit eternal life (Luke 18:18-23). I could easily excuse myself by saying, “Jesus never told me to give away all I have.” I might rationalize that it would be unloving and unjust to do so, because I have a family to support. But I can’t get away from Jesus’ teaching that the best barometer of genuine religion is what we do with our money and possessions. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also” (Matt. 6:21). By this measure my Grinch-like heart is two sizes too small.
And what about my church? Is our religion showy and hypocritical or humble and genuine? We don’t devour widows’ houses like Wall Street bankers but what do we do with our money and possessions?
When my children were small I once asked them, “What happens to your money when you put it in the offering plate at church?” They said, “The men collect it and give it to God.” “That’s right!” I said, beaming with paternal pride. Then I asked a follow-up question: “And what does God do with the money?” In unison they replied, “He gives it to the poor people.” That response hit me like a splash of cold water in the face, because I knew only a miniscule portion of the offerings went to help the poor. “God have mercy on us,” I thought to myself.
What would happen if a church took Jesus literally and sold everything it had and gave it away to the poor? We’ll probably never know.