In the Synoptic Gospels, the teachings of Jesus have often been broken up into disjointed units. This article restores the pattern of Jesus’ teaching on the issue of priorities…
“If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” In our blatantly capitalist world, success is often defined by the possession of wealth. In our culture, we value wealth above all else. Materialism is king. “He wins who dies with the most toys,” is a popular bumper sticker slogan.
Then there’s what has sometimes been referred to as the “playboy philosophy”: Love things, use people.
In our culture, money opens all doors. It provides social status where none is deserved. It paves the way for political office, then it corrupts it. Greed is the engine that drives our money-mad culture.
This is not to say that earning money is immoral. Nor does it imply that the accumulation of wealth is itself a bad thing. It’s a matter of priorities. It’s an issue of what we love most—the pursuit of wealth, or the pursuit of godliness.
Jesus’ Teaching Restored
The late Dr. Robert Lindsey, one of the world’s pre-eminent Synoptic1 scholars, restored many of the fragmented teachings of Jesus as found in the first three Gospels to their original order. He was able to identify a typical pattern to the way Yeshua the Rabbi taught. That pattern is as follows: incident; teaching; two parables.
The incidents, teachings and parables have, in the synoptics, often been broken apart and placed out of order in the various texts. By restoring these literary units to their original structure, the teaching of Jesus on certain subjects becomes clear. This article is based on the reconstruction of Jesus’ teaching beginning with an incident described in Luke 10:38-40:
Now it happened as they went that he entered a certain village [Bethany]; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary [Miriam in Hebrew], who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard his word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
Let’s examine some of the particulars of these verses.
“She Sat at Jesus’ Feet”
Note first the comment “sat at Jesus’ feet.” Such an expression was common in Jesus’ day, and in later Rabbinic times. It refers to the idea of discipleship. Mary and Martha were rabbinic students who understood the importance of playing host to a great teacher. Jesus, like most of the great rabbis of his time, had both men and women disciples (students).
In the Oral Law of the Jews [Mishnah], we find a reference to this very thing:
“Jose b. Joezer of Zeredah said: ‘Let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst.” (Mishnah, Aboth 1:4b).
Rabbinic students literally “ate the dust” of the feet of their teachers as they followed them around the dusty roads of ancient Palestine. They often sat on the ground before them, both out on the hillsides, and in the homes of observant Jews.
“Martha Was Distracted With Much Serving”
When Jesus was present and teaching, Mary was concerned with only one thing: drinking in his words “with thirst.” She didn’t want to miss anything. She hung on every word. She wanted to engage the great teacher. She wanted to plant herself right in front of him and see the expressions on his face, to monitor his gestures, and hear every inflection. She was spellbound by anything he had to say.
Martha, on the other hand, was busy playing the gracious hostess. She was more concerned with physical things than spiritual. Yes, she was a true disciple, albeit a distracted one. Her mind was on the non-spiritual side of life. The social aspects of simply having Jesus in her home were more important than was the content of what he was teaching.
Furthermore, Martha was irritated that her sister wouldn’t help her with these physical ablutions. She went over Mary’s head in soliciting Jesus’ help to get her sister to pitch in. (Do sisters ever listen to sisters?)
This incident gave rise to a teaching by Jesus on the issue of materialism vs. spirituality. In our synoptic Gospel accounts, the teaching part has been disconnected from the incident. It is found in Luke 10:41,42, and in Luke 12:22ff. Let’s pick up the story from those verses:
And Jesus answered and said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
When Jesus said, “Martha, Martha,” He was speaking affectionately, not in rebuke. He discerned that his pupil Martha was preoccupied with physical things at the expense of spiritual. His comments were intended to help her reorder her priorities. He defended Mary’s zeal for understanding—even if it meant, for the moment, neglecting some of the physical things that needed doing.
Jesus, in his teaching, always places the spiritual ahead of the material. This is fundamental to his approach, and to his personal example. Jesus was always “about his Father’s business.” He was relentless in carrying out his Father’s will. He taught that if we take care of the things of God in our lives, God will take care of our material needs. He will provide for us.
Teaching Follows Incident
Now let’s continue with this pattern of incident, teaching and parable.
And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? If you then are not able to do the least, why are you anxious for the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith? And do not seek what you should eat or what you shall drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you have need of these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these tings shall be added to you.
This is the teaching unit. Now let’s examine some of the details:
Note the repeated use of the theme word “worry.” We found it first in the account of the incident that aroused this teaching: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled…” What we are “worried about” is the issue here. Are we more worried, or concerned, about material things than about things pertaining to the Kingdom?
In our time, materialism has become an obsessive way of life. Much evil is generated in the lust for money, houses, and material possessions. It’s not only true in capitalist America, but in all of the nations of the world: “For all these things the nations of the world seek after.”
It is quite natural to put the physical ahead of the spiritual. It is wholly human to be concerned about issues of survival. We have to have money, we have to have shelter, we must wear clothing etc. etc. Jesus is not saying it is wrong to pursue these things at all. He is saying it is wrong to put them first at the expense of spiritual things.
In another place, Jesus is recorded as teaching, “A man’s life consists not of the abundance of the things that he possesses.” (Luke 12:15). At least, it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, many in our culture believe “he wins who dies with the most toys.” This is precisely the opposite of Jesus’ philosophy.
Seek You First the Kingdom…
What does it mean to seek first the Kingdom of God? Does it mean to place getting into the future Kingdom first in your life? Is Jesus here referring to having a place in the World to Come? Not at all.
The Kingdom of God, in Jewish parlance, is not something exclusively future. It is also present. It is now. It means accepting the yoke of God’s sovereignty in one’s life. It means submitting to the rule and authority of Yahweh in the present. In Jesus’ usage, it meant specifically becoming a part of his Kingdom movement. It means what Jesus said we should pray for in the “Lord’s Prayer”—”Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven…” This is Kingdom. Jesus started a Kingdom movement. This is the age in which the Kingdom of God is growing from mustard-seed size to the point where it will fill the whole earth. When all mankind worships and serves the one true God, the Kingdom will be fully manifested. Today, it is in a growth period commenced in the first century of our era when Jesus walked the earth.2
Jesus was telling Mary, Martha and his other disciples to put God, and the fulfillment of his will, first in their lives. God would then take care of their material needs.
The Parable of the Materialistic Man
Now that we have seen both the incident that generated the teaching, and the teaching itself, let’s take a look at the two parables Jesus then used to drive His point home. According to Dr. Lindsey’s restored pattern, the first parable is found in Luke 12:16-21:
Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
This man had no concern for spiritual things. He was looking forward to an early and prosperous retirement. Unlike most of us, his money was made. His physical house was in order, but his spiritual house was in a shambles. His life’s energy had gone into taking care of material business at the expense of spiritual development. Now, just when he thought he was going to be able to live the Life of Riley for a few years, God was about to take his amply-prepared-for life away from him.
In context, Jesus is saying to Mary, Martha and his talmidim—rabbinic students—”This is where excessive concern for the material at the expense of the spiritual can wind up.”
Which kind of wealth is most important: material or spiritual? Is it better to be a rich farmer who is spiritually empty, or to be rich spiritually, and of more modest means? This is the choice Jesus sets before his students.
Second Parable: The Rich Man and the Beggar
Now let’s look at the second parable in this teaching unit. It is found in Luke 16:19-31. We will quote from the Jewish New Testament:
Once there was a rich man who used to dress in the most expensive clothing and spent his days in magnificent luxury. At his gate had been laid a beggar named El’azar (Hebrew for Lazarus) who was covered with sores. He would have been glad to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table; but instead, even the dogs would come and lick his sores. In time the beggar died and was carried away by the angels to Avaraham’s side; the rich man also died and was buried.
In Sh’ol, where he was in torment, the rich man looked up and saw Avaraham far away with El’azar at his side. He called out, “Father Avraham, take pity on me and send El’azar just to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, because I’m in agony in this fire!” However, Avraham said, “Son, remember that when you were alive, you got the good things while he got the bad; but now he gets his consolation here, while you are the one in agony. Yet that isn’t all: between you and us a deep rift has been established, so that those who would like to pass from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”
He answered, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house, where I have five brothers, to warn them; so that they may be spared having to come to this place of torment too.” But Avraham said, “They have Moshe and the Prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Avraham, they need more. If someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!” But he replied, “If they won’t listen to Moshe and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!”
The term “Moshe and the Prophets” is a Jewish way of referring to the Scriptures. Jews call the Old Testament the TaNaKh. The “T” is for Torah—the five books of Moses that were written on a single scroll and viewed to contain the actual words of God. The “N” is for Nevi’im—the Prophets. The third section, often unmentioned, is Ketuvim—the Writings. To say “Moses and the Prophets” or “The Law and the Prophets” is to say “The Holy Scriptures.”
Jesus is then sending the message that Scripture ought to be sufficient to make us realize that one must place the spiritual ahead of the material in our lives. The Old Testament, with which most Jews were intimately familiar, contained myriad admonitions to put God first in their lives.
Putting God First
When asked, on another occasion (Mt 22:36), what was the great commandment of Torah, Jesus replied by quoting Dt 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” What else can this mean but putting God first in one’s life?
If a person puts most of his or her energy into developing the material side of life, there will be little time or energy left over for the things of God. It’s a matter of priorities? If we put everything into our material bank accounts, and nothing into our spiritual bank accounts, there will be nothing in the latter to draw on when we need it. This was the position the rich man found himself in. All his resources were material in nature. None were spiritual. He was spiritually bankrupt, but materially rich. Lazarus was the opposite. In his penury, he had learned to rely on God for sustenance. Now he found himself in God’s eternal care.
Both the rich man and Lazarus reaped in the afterlife what they had sown in this life. The rich man realized too late what had happened. After realizing that he himself was beyond help and comfort, he suggested to Abraham draconian measures to ensure his brothers’ eternal security. Abraham pointed to the Word of God. (Can you imagine what the world would be like if the only way to bring people to repentance was to have others go to them from the dead?)
The Oral Law of the Jews contains a wonderful saying, “Repent one day before you die.” Since none of us knows when his or her life will be required of us by God, we should live in a constant state of repentance. We should always place our own spiritual development ahead of our material advancement. If we look to the things of the Kingdom—that is, God’s sovereign rule in our lives—God will take care of our material needs.
I’m sure Martha, and the others in her house, got the message! Jesus’ teaching on this occasion contains timeless truths for all of us in successive generations. Every one of us should be convicted to put far more energy and zeal into building our spiritual storehouses than our material ones. As Jesus said on another occasion, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21).
If any of us is blessed with wealth, and we have poor people in our family, our neighborhood, or our community, then it is our duty to use some of that wealth to assist them until they get on their feet. If we are wealthy, and we put the perpetuation and growth of that wealth first in our lives, ahead of spiritual things, then we have our priorities mixed up. If we are poor, and we put more energy into the generation of wealth than into spiritual things, then we are also spiritually impoverished.
Whether we are rich or poor, we must seek first the things of God. It is harder for rich people to participate in what God is doing because it will inevitably mean the sacrificing of some of their wealth. This lesson is repeated over and over again in Jesus’ teaching, and in that of his disciples (Mt 6:24; 19:23-30; Jas 5:1 ff.).
The Engine That Drives Capitalism
In our Capitalist culture, it is easy to become materialistic. The pursuit of wealth and power is what life in these United States revolves around. It has often been said, “Greed is the engine that drives America.” In the famous film, “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas’s character says, “Greed is good…greed is good.”
He was wrong. Greed is taking all you can get without regard to the needs of others. Greed is avaricious, covetous, and a great, consuming evil that will leave those who are enslaved to it “tormented in a flame” on the other side of this life. It is better to think like Mary than to think like Martha. It is better to “hunger and thirst after righteousness” than it is to devote one’s life to storing up material treasures for this life. It is better to place one’s life under the governance of the Living God, than to serve the god of materialism.
When the Great Teacher entered her home, Mary wanted to get next to him. She hung on every word. She yearned to absorb his wisdom and to bring her life more fully under the rule of the Kingdom. Martha was concerned with cleaning up, fixing, fetching, and fussing. She was more interested in impressing Jesus with her tidiness and her hospitality—with form rather than substance. Mary wanted the substance. This is the way every true follower of Yeshua the Rabbi should be.
Making It Practical
There are ways of testing yourself to see where your heart is. The correct answers to these questions are self-evident:
- Which is most important to you: studying the stock market, or studying your Bible?
- When was the last time you had a really terrific Bible study?
- What percentage of your resources is devoted to helping the poor and needy?
- What role does prayer play in your life: major or minor?
- If a great Bible teacher was coming to your house, would you be more concerned about impressing him with the neatness and appearance of your home, and your hospitality, than with his teaching itself?
- If you are the head of a household: Which is most important— your job, or meeting your family’s needs for spiritual leadership and teaching?
- What is the highest priority in your life—the one to which all others play second fiddle?
- What would be the most difficult thing for you to sacrifice to please God? (In other words, what is your personal idol—the one thing you couldn’t give up for God?)
- What role does Jesus Christ, and his teaching, play in your life?
Jesus’ teaching is the Word of God. He lived what he taught. He lived to “be about his Father’s business.” He showed appropriate concern for, but no anxiety over, material things. He knew his Father would provide.
Jesus was passionate about his Messianic work. During his earthly life, he laid the foundation for all subsequent Torah teaching. He was the very personification of Torah—he lived it, he exemplified it, he summed it up in his heart and in his behavior. In the end, he gave everything—even His life—for us.
He is our model.
For Further Reading:
A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark
The Jesus Sources
Jesus Rabbi & Lord
all by Dr. Robert L. Lindsey
1 Matthew, Mark and Luke are called “Synoptic” Gospels. The word implies that these three accounts of Jesus’ life present, or take, a common view.
2 Note: Please do not confuse this with the notion that the Church itself is destined to conquer the world. We are not talking about the “Kingdom Now” movement here. The Church is not, and should not be, a primarily political entity. We are not seeking to establish a theocracy or religious tyranny on the earth. We do seek to bring more and more people into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It was he who said, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say?” Those who do the things he said are part of his Kingdom.