In the Bible, there was a woman in Bethany who anointed Jesus in preparation for His burial; she broke an alabaster jar of expensive oil and poured it over His head. The disciples rebuked her for being so wasteful, saying she could’ve sold it and given the money to the poor. Jesus states, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always” (Mark 14:3-7).
It almost seems like Jesus was recommending neglecting the poor at that moment. This is surprising, considering many other verses in the Bible, and Jesus Himself, makes it clear that generosity to those in need is an important part of being a Christian:
“Then Jesus, looking at him [a rich man], loved him, and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me’” (Mark 10:21).
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17, English Standard Version).
“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done” (Proverbs 19:17, New International Version).
So what does He mean when He chastises the disciples and commends the woman? How can we know when and how to give?
FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE
Jesus’ response shows that there are times for giving to others, and times for extravagant displays of worship, celebration and feasting. God separates special times, like the Feast of Tabernacles, where the focus is on rejoicing and enjoying good things. We shouldn’t feel bad about those times or think that we need to constantly deny ourselves because there are still those who are suffering. God understood the importance of times of indulgence as an aspect of our worship that reflects His extravagant goodness. The woman in Bethany wanted to express her love for Jesus through a physical outpouring of something of great value. Jesus knew her heart, and rebuked the disciples rather than her. God doesn’t want us to be so concerned with costs or efficiencies that we lose our ability to passionately worship Him.
GOD’S ECONOMIC SYSTEM
Jesus makes it clear that there will always be those in need, either as a result of their own actions, or actions that are out of their control. Poor financial decisions, house fires, medical bills, health issues, addictions, family fractures and other life realities can each lead to someone needing assistance. There will always be those who find themselves in dire economic situations and wind up with an inability to provide for their basic necessities.
Jesus’ response shows that there are times for giving to others, and times for extravagant displays of worship, celebration and feasting.
Because of this, in ancient Israel, God put a system in place where those who had a loss of economic opportunity could choose to work for someone for a period of time, trading their labor for meals and a roof over their head. After a six-year period of service, they were released on the seventh year and received a jump-start on getting themselves reset financially (Deuteronomy 15:10-11). Also, a part of this system was a land Sabbath, when the land was not sown or worked; anything that grew naturally was to be gleaned by the poor, as it was not to be harvested. Additionally, every 50th year was the Jubilee year (seven cycles of seven years), when all outstanding debts were forgiven, and all properties returned to their original owners (Leviticus 25). God provided ways for people to improve their situation with governmental and social structures and guidelines. Although no current nation follows God’s exact guidelines for Israel, many do have social programs designed to help those who find themselves in dire straits.
The Bible also makes it clear that He expects everyone to work hard and contribute what they can. The apostle Paul explained, “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10, King James Version, and read through verse 15).
Paul is addressing believers in Thessalonica, where there were some who were taking advantage of Church members by being idle and refusing to work. He instructed the Church members not to provide them with church aid unless they were willing to work to contribute. This instruction was meant to admonish them, in order that they would come back into God’s economic system and His way of life.
Solomon wrote that we should not “withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act” (Proverbs 3:27).
Especially in our time today, it can be difficult to discern who is truly needy, and who is taking advantage of the generosity of others. We should know enough about whom we are giving to and what we are giving to ensure we are truly helping rather than enabling an existing issue. But this complexity doesn’t take away our responsibility to help and be generous with what we have.
So, what can you do? Solomon wrote that we should not “withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act” (Proverbs 3:27, NIV). There are many ways to get started. You could get your whole family involved and volunteer at your local soup kitchen or homeless shelter, or make up supply baskets to give to those who are truly in need. Sometimes it’s even better to give someone food, gift cards, bags of essentials or clothing instead of handing out money. You could also save up some money to donate to a trustworthy organization. The United Church of God is a part of the Good Works and LifeNets programs that offer practical assistance to disadvantaged people throughout the world (ucg.org/members/outreach/good-works). This is a great way for you to be confident that your donation will go to those who are truly in need.
There is no question that as Christians we have an absolute responsibility to care for those who are in need. This is not only our responsibility, but should also be our desire—to help others whenever we are able. Generosity and giving are part of our identity as Christians, one part in a rich and full spiritual life that aims to reflect not just one element of God’s character, but all of it. CC