In July, our church hosted an Egypt-themed Vacation Bible School that sought to give children a realistic, life-like experience of the story of Joseph (the biblical character who was sold into slavery, imprisoned unjustly, but became a prominent leader among the Egyptians). In preparing to bring Egypt to life, we were setting up a pyramid or two, and I was reminded of their purpose. Those who have visited Egypt can attest to how impressive the pyramids are, but they served a very useless purpose. They were shrines for dead pharaohs. Experts still disagree on the details, but it seems that they served to protect the mummified bodies of these former Egyptian leaders for the afterlife.
As you may have heard it said, "You can't take it with you." We can all probably think of someone in our lives who we think has spent time and money on things that aren't going to benefit anyone after he or she is gone. But wait a minute - am I not guilty of such things myself? Extravagance always happens to be more than we have, doesn't it? Compared to the majority of the earth's population, I'm extravagant.
Have you ever tried to practically answer the question, "How much is too much?" It's practically...impossible. It's all so relative to where you live, what your needs are (e.g., health), and what you do with it. I'm reading a book written by a former seminary classmate who founded an urban ministry to the homeless. In one particularly inspiring part of the book, she describes how she came to the decision to sell her 5-bedroom house and move to something much more modest. She did this for two reasons: 1) to be able to invest more money in her non-profit ministry, and 2) she felt too guilty and convicted about the disparity between her living situation and that of her poor or homeless friends. I am very inspired by her story. If you're willing to give up your standard of living for strangers in need, you're a saint in my book. But it gets you thinking: there's really no clear stopping point, is there? After I downgrade to a cheaper house, why don't I then get rid of my air conditioning? Why don't I then sell my cars? Why don't I just keep going until I'm also living in a cardboard box? Relative to one's station in life, there comes a point where our voluntary poverty would render us no longer helpful to others in need. Temporary solidarity with the poor is a great thing...it makes me realize what I have. Permanent solidarity would just make me yet another person in need. Where is that point for you? What would it look like for you to provide enough for your family and give the rest away? Are you there? Why is it so hard?
The Jesus we find in the gospels had a very special word for and ministry to the "poor" (broadly defined). In fact, the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus after them, seem so compassionate towards the poor and so hostile towards the rich that modern theologians began using the term "preferential option for the poor" (first articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez) to describe what we find in these traditions. Most decent theology schools at least introduce students to this view. But one thing it tends to do, especially while you're in the vacuum of seminary, is make you glorify the poor. As we reflect on Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 saying that "whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me," we start to expect to find God, and godly behavior, in the poor. But as Wendy McCaig finds out and describes in her book, this is not always the case. Those who live in what we call generational or perpetual poverty are sometimes very selfish, greedy, ungrateful, and unmotivated. Perhaps such traits are responsible for their current plight, but often, those in poverty find themselves living day to day, meal to meal, and it's nearly impossible to find motivation and vision in such circumstances. As so many affluent people don't realize, it's a steep downward spiral.
If you're like me, you might live life thinking that you're not in danger of becoming homeless, but in reality, you are. My family is one major accident, illness, or job loss away from having to depend on others. And therein lies the reason for being generous in any way we can with what we have. What if it were me? One day, it could be me. Jesus said to the rich young man, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor..." (Matthew 19:21). But for those of us who perceive perfection to be a little too far off, we have the simple biblical injunction to "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3).
At the very least, let's start by making sure we're not building huge pyramids for a dead Egyptian.