* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mark 12: Authority, Money, and Responsibility

Two short passages finish out Mark 12. First, the author of Mark tells us that the scribes love their positions of authority in the community, and they use their power to take advantage of the disenfranchised (particularly widows). This is inappropriate behavior for a person claiming to be righteous, and thus they will receive condemnation in proportion to the respect they demand. The second passage turns contributions to the temple treasury into an object lesson. The wealthy give appropriate amounts, but not so much that they are inconvenienced; a widow gives "everything she had, all she had to live on," and is praised for being the most generous contributor.

As has been our practice, we can look to parallel passages in which the authors of Matthew and Luke have copied from the gospel of Mark. The authors of Luke presents these two passages almost identically to the gospel of Mark. (This is what we might call plagiarism today, but the ancient world took a different view.) The authors of Matthew, however, have quite a bit to say against the scribes and Pharisees. The authors of Luke include similar words in an earlier chapter. The sentiments are about the same as what the authors of Mark express, just a bit less succinct and a bit more incendiary. Due to the drastic differences, it would serve us best to wait for a walk through the gospel of Matthew to deal with this extensive castigation. The gospel of Matthew, incidentally, leaves out the object lesson about the widow's generosity.

Both of these observations bear some similarity to situations we see in the twenty-first century, and while we could delve into first-century Jewish sectarianism and expectations of contributing to the temple treasury, such intellectual pursuits would not necessarily bring us any closer to understanding and applying the basic points of these passages in our own lives. At first, the two seem like unrelated comments on two different behaviors. The underlying foundation of both of these passages, however, is understanding the motivations behind actions. We may not be able to understand the motivations of another person, even though we may think we have somebody pegged. We should, at the very least, be attentive to our own motivations, though.

Looking at the scribes of Mark 12, then, we get a picture of people who think very highly of themselves and want other people to think very highly of them too. We don't actually know what the motivations of the scribes were; we know that they were religious and legal authorities with a lot of community responsibilities. In an authoritarian system, lack of respect for the people who make the rules is a problem, so it's possible that the stereotypical scribe persona was an intentional attempt to command respect from the people over whom one had responsibility. It could also have been a corrupt system that allowed for some people to benefit from other people suffering.

We can probably think of a long list of people who think very highly of themselves today. Some politicians, celebrities, religious leaders, and even big fish in little civic groups have a habit of telling everyone who will listen how important and right they are. Some people are a little more subtle, but astute observation will indicate that they are putting on a bit of a show. There are also some politicians, religious leaders, and celebrities who do some admirable things while maintaining very admirable attitudes. It's not really about the position of authority they hold, it's how they behave in that position. Some people may not know how not to react with boisterous self-inflation when they think they are being attacked. Other people seem to have developed the skill of remaining centered even in the midst of chaos.

This speaks to a person's emotional maturity then--what some call self-differentiation. When we are emotionally immature, we sometimes do harmful things to ourselves and to other people because we are trying to alleviate our own anxiety. We might throw our authority around because we're afraid that people aren't going to respect us. We might make a show of force because we're afraid that if we look weak, people won't do what we want them to do. We might take things from people we perceive as less important than us in order to curry favor with people we think can benefit us. All of this comes from letting anxiety or fear govern our behavior. We can't know what the scribes criticized in Mark were thinking, but it's obvious that not all of them were handling their authority with emotional maturity. Their actions wound up harming the people and the community for which they were supposed to be responsible.

It isn't just famous people who have responsibility, though. It isn't just politicians and celebrities and leaders of organizations who suffer from emotional immaturity. There may be times in our own lives when we just want people to listen to us and do what we want, and we may be tempted to throw our own authority around, such as it may be. It's tough in those situations to realize that our anxiety is pulling the strings. When we work toward greater emotional maturity, we benefit ourselves and the people around us--the people to whom we are responsible regardless of our title or level of fame. More about emotional maturity in a moment.

First, though, let's take a closer look at the widow that the authors of Mark praised. It's important to recognize that the people who gave "out of their abundance" aren't criticized for doing so, but it's clear that the widow is considered more generous because of the proportion of her wealth that she gave. Unfortunately, knowing only what we are told about this woman's circumstances, she seems to be committing an act of profound irresponsibility. Why would she give everything she had to live on? (This is what we are told. It's pointless to question whether that is an accurate assessment of what she gave.) The only reason she would give everything she had to live on would seem to be that she knew that someone else was going to provide for her needs. The modern day equivalent would be to sign over your social security to a church because you know that the people around you are going to buy your groceries, mow your lawn, pay your utility bills, and generally take care of you. There may be some people in this very situation, but does this reflect a lack of responsibility in one's life?

Money is a frequently discussed issue in a lot of ethical and religious contexts, and the practicalities of managing money are not always easy. Only about 10% of the population of first century Jerusalem could be considered wealthy, and there was a profound gulf between the wealthy and the common citizen. One could not work one's way into the upper class. In our own time, what had seemed to be a gradual equalization of wealth has been reversed to such an extent that we are in nearly the same position, except for the illusions of prosperity that coat the West. We have become a part of a global economy in which the wealthiest 10% of the world's population holds 86% of the world's wealth. On the lower end of the scale, 50% of the world's adult population (altogether) holds 1% of the world's wealth. This means that any of the problems of this world that can be solved by throwing money at them cannot be realistically shouldered by half (or more) of the people who currently exist, no matter how inspired they might be to contribute something. The hope of working together financially is an illusion for most of the world in terms of global issues.

In more localized systems, however, cooperation can be much more meaningful. Contributing money toward something in cooperation with one's immediate neighbors can have a big influence for that community of people. What is more responsible, then, if a person has a small amount of money? Is it best to give that money to an organization that doesn't directly support one's well-being holistically? Or is it best to pool one's resources with one's neighbors in order to improve well-being for a community of people of which one is a part? When the widow gave all that she had, paltry though it may have seemed to some, she was assuming that she would be dependent upon others. Fortunately, the Jewish practice at the time was to take care of widows and orphans, so she was contributing toward an organization that was committed to tending to her care. Our culture is different, for better or worse. Our decisions require a bit of thoughtfulness if we are to be personally responsible in our lives.

Even when we choose to contribute some of our money toward something we consider to be worthy, we have a choice about our attitude. A wealthy person who gives to a cause out of sincere generosity and a wealthy person who gives to a cause for a tax break or out of a sense of obligation do not have the same experience. The fact that they are wealthy has nothing to do with it. The values behind their contributions are what makes their experiences distinct. A wealth of psychological research has demonstrated that altruism is pleasing to people. We like to be generous. We like to help others. There is something about the development of our brains that has linked altruism with our own sense of personal satisfaction. So, when we are altruistic, we are happier. It seems a shame to limit the opportunities for altruism to a minute portion of the world's population simply because they have the most money with which to be altruistic.

From a logical standpoint, then, it seems most reasonable to place the financial responsibility for global issues on the shoulders of the wealthiest 10% of the world's population. It seems most reasonable (especially for the 2/3 of the world whose personal wealth is less than $10,000 each) to use available funds to be as personally responsible as possible for one's own well-being. There's a bit more to these stories than the allocation of wealth and responsibility, though. These lessons are about one's motivation. Are you giving money because you feel ashamed or afraid? Are you giving money out of a sense of obligation? Are you giving away money without considering how that act will affect your ability to care for yourself and the other people for whom you are responsible? Or are you being thoughtful and passionate in what you contribute? Are you giving because you care about something greater than yourself and you can do so without jeopardizing your own well-being? What we have to offer goes far beyond money. If we care about other people and want to make a difference, there are many ways that we can do so without harming ourselves or those around us.

Whether we are considering how we use our power and authority or how we use our wealth and resources, the underlying foundation is our attitude. Basically, it is a matter of considering whether we are being emotionally mature about our decisions. Emotional maturity is the ability to respond thoughtfully to a situation instead of reacting thoughtlessly. Emotional maturity reflects one's commitment to deeply held guiding principles instead of being influenced by the anxiety of the moment. Emotional maturity is about one's willingness to be responsible for one's own actions and beliefs instead of blaming other people or circumstances. From a perspective of emotional maturity, then, being responsible for one's own well-being is very different from being self-indulgent or hedonistic. Emotionally mature people keep their commitments (and make commitments they can keep). They don't fold or discard their values in the face of flattery or criticism. Emotionally mature people exhibit gratitude and humility, and they recognize the value of connection and partnership as much as they recognize the value of having clear boundaries in human relationships.

When it comes down to it, we are capable of doing those things that lead toward the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. We can't be responsible for other people's actions, but we can strive for our own actions to reflect our deepest, most noble selves. We can commit to being the best possible versions of ourselves. That means handling our authority well--not demanding respect but earning it, and not harming the people under our care. It means handling our finances well--not hoarding what we have out of a fear of scarcity, and not neglecting our own well-being out of a sense of shame or obligation. It also means handling all of the resources of our lives in a way that reflects our guiding principles. Our time, our intelligence, our communication, our compassion, our skillfulness--anything that we have at our disposal through which we can live authentically.

All people have inherent value, and that includes us as well as every person with whom we come into contact. We can live by that principle if we choose.

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