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Sudden Wealth Syndrome
November 12, 2000
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Mark, chapter 12 and follow along as I read verses 38-44. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
38 And he said unto them in his doctrine, Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces,
39 And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts:
40 Which devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation.
41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.
42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Since SC approved a lottery this week, and since everyone always thinks that they are that one in three million that will win such a lottery, perhaps we ought to discuss SWS, Sudden Wealth Syndrome. The term "Sudden Wealth Syndrome" was invented by therapist Stephen Goldbart who noted that people who suddenly receive lots of money may display symptoms of "excessive guilt" and "identity confusion." For example, the very night the Maryland lottery made Robert Bronson a millionaire, his wife told him it would ruin their marriage. Seventeen months later, they were divorced.
Now you might say, that would not happen to me. Your prayer may be, "O Lord let me win the lottery and I promise not to grow proud and obnoxious." But chances are that if you were to win the soon-to-be SC lottery, it would not make you any happier than you are now. Here is an interesting fact: People do not handle financial windfalls very well, at least not if studies of lottery winners are any indication. Troubles start to pile up, according to top winners, with big payouts serving as no guarantee of future happiness.
Now comes another report. Merrill Lynch announced last spring that the number of millionaires in the United States and Canada has risen almost 40 percent since 1997. The question is no longer "Who Wants to BE a Millionaire?" - but instead, "Who Already IS a Millionaire?" According to the Merrill Lynch report right now in the United States and Canada, there are two and one-half million. You heard that right, two and a half million millionaires. That is about 40,000 millionaires for every state and province in the U.S. and Canada.
But this exploding affluence has a downside. Part of it is Stephen Goldbart's Sudden Wealth Syndrome. Some of the new superwealthy are so uneasy with their fortunes that they succumb to: "excessive guilt" and, in effect, lose their identities. Another downside is that morality tends to be buried by dollars.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel in his new book, The Fourth Great Awakening & The Future of Egalitarianism argues that the struggle between morality and economics is a recurring pattern of the American experience. Changing technologies and economic conditions collide with moral values to produce spiritual crises, social reform and political upheavals. In response, people strive to impose a moral framework on new economic realities. Then economic conditions change and the cycle begins again. Following other scholars, Fogel identifies four American religious "awakenings" - beginning in roughly 1730, 1800, 1890 and 1960 - that eventually affected intellectual life and politics.
Of course, none of these turning points can claim to be the very first Great Awakening. That distinction belongs to Jesus Christ. The ministry of Jesus in the flesh was full of economic analysis, spiritual crisis, social reform and political upheaval..
Today's text demonstrates why all those who held traditional positions of religious power found Jesus' presence and preaching so disturbing.Beginning in chapter 11, Jesus confronts and challenges the "organized religions" of Judaea. One by one he engages in debate, discourse and sometimes argument the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the scribes, the Herodians, and temple religion in general. His overarching indictment of the religious-political-economic establishment is summed up in Mark 11:17 when he accuses the leaders of having transformed the temple into a "den of robbers."
In today's text in particular, Jesus assaults the scribes. Verse 38 opens with an unambiguous warning "Beware of the scribes." In verse 38, the verbal image Jesus draws of the scribe is not complimentary. They are pictured as self-consciously strolling about the marketplace dressed in long robes, wearing flowing talliths or prayer cloths with elaborate sacred fringes--all of which is supposed to represent a pious scholar, but as Jesus sarcastically points out they may be scholarly, they are not pious.
The scribe supposes himself one of the learned men of judaic society. All human socieites hae some sort of hierarchy, and if first century Judah, the wise men, the scribes were in the upper echelon of the hierarchy. They were high up on the pecking order. Little wonder then that the scribes felt themselves worthy of respect and admiration. To be "greeted with respect in the marketplaces" was, they thought, a fitting honor for someone of their position. As Jesus goes on to note, the scribes feel their position gave them places of preeminence both in religious gatherings (in the synagogue) and in social settings (at banquets).
Even worse than all this pompous posing, however, is Jesus' indictment of the scribes' basic lack of morality and of genuine piety. In verse 40, he denounces their shameless profiteering at the expense of widows. Since scribes had considerable legal training, Jesus' accusation may stem from incidents of mishandled or misappropriated estates, which left the legal helper (the scribe) well-off, and the widow herself destitute. Jesus then accuses these same corrupt and heartless officials of offering up long, impressive prayers-- in the synagogue or temple or some other highly public place--merely for the "sake of appearance." Their prayers are not offered to God but are uttered with great eloquence to impress an audience. They loved to pray, not to God, but to any group of people whom they might impress with their flowery rhetoric.Jesus sums up the fate of these scribes by announcing that "they will receive the greater condemnation."
Why will they be condemned? Because they have rejected the law. Earlier in the chapter in verses 29-31 Jesus has summarized the law, saying, "The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.
And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these." Now Jesus declares that based on their thoughtless rejection of the law of love God and others, these religious authorities face a future not of greater honor but of greater condemnation. Because they know more and because they are in positions of authority, their condemnation is greater than that of other people.
Then in v41 our passage shifts gears and describes the story of the "widow's mite." The main question we want to ask today is: What is Jesus telling us with this story. It is no accident that the story of the widow's mite follows the condemnation of the scribes. Verses 41-44 should be read along with verses 38-40, for the story of the generous widow is a continuation of Jesus' condemnation of the religious authorities of Judaea.
Jesus is still in Jerusalem, probably on the temple mount if not within the temple proper. The "treasury" is probably the site where the thirteen collection boxes (one for each tribe), shaped in the form of trumpets, were displayed. People approached these receptacles, which were broad at the bottom and narrow at the top, and dropped in their temple contribution.
As Jesus and his disciples watch, they see "many rich people put in large sums" (v. 41). Then a "poor widow" approaches. Her presence immediately recalls v40 which describes the harsh treatment "widows" have received by the scribes. The tiny pittance this woman puts into the treasury is hard to calculate - but estimates range from 1/4 to 1/96 of a denarius. Jesus' point is that this is an extremely small, a trivial, trifling sum.
But it is not the woman's poverty that makes her gift significant. It is not because she is poor that Jesus holds her up to us as an example. Jesus feels compelled to comment on this woman's gift because she, alone among all the contributors lined up to give their offerings, gave her all. The very rich, who had put in much; the moderately well-off, who had put in a decent amount; the struggling, who sneaked in their pennies - all those who had gone before this widow had limited their giving - they had held back a portion of their money for their own use. This widow stands apart as the one who has turned over to God's use all that she has to offer. Those two almost worthless coins represented her last shred of security, her fragile thread of hope for her future.
What a contrast between this widow and the powerful scribes who strut like peacocks in the marketplace. With all their concern for appearances, they hoard their power and prestige for their own self-aggrandizement. With all her concern for being an obedient servant of God, the widow gives all she has to offer - even her future - for the sake of God.
This widow is at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, the poorest of the powerless poor, yet when she drops her two coins into the collection, Jesus points her out as a perfect example of his spiritual, social, economic and political reformation: He announced that the poor widow had put in more than all the rich. She contribution of two small copper coins surpassed everything they did--because she put in everything she had.
I mentioned earlier Robert Fogel's book, The Fourth Great Awakening & The Future of Egalitarianism that maintains that the struggle between morality and economics is a recurring American pattern. The time has come for another Great Awakening - another "wake-up call" - and this new reformation is going to center around whether we are willing to be this widow. That is why Jesus tells us this story--to show us what we should be. We should be willing to "throw in" everything we have. Jesus is calling us to contribute to his kingdom, and not just through monetary donations. Jesus calls us to give all that we have and all that we are. We are to give time, effort, and also our money. I was talking earlier about the number of millionaires in the USA and Canada. You may be saying, well I am not one of those, and I cannot afford to give much of anything to Jesus. Actually you are probably richer than you think you are. In the book The Millionaire Next Door, the point is made that if we can simply afford to buy such a book, we are already in the top 5 percent of the world's richest people. We are already far richer than most people in the world. So let's be honest: Most of us have money. Not a ton of money, but enough to pay the mortgage, put food on the table, make a car payment and take a vacation or two a year. And remember this, all but the poorest of the poor live better today than all but the richest of the rich a century ago. We are simply not in the same class as the poor widow in the Gospel of Mark, even though some months we feel as if we're down to a few copper coins after paying the cable bill the cell phone bill, the orthodontist's bill, and the credit card bill. But the very fact that we can even have all those bills indicates that we are wealthy. That reminds me of a story about the moviemaker Mike Todd. Someone asked him if he was wealthy. He said, "I must be. I owe three million dollars." Point well taken. If you have bills, it is probably a sign that you are fairly prosperous. So most Americans can be described as fairly prosperous.
But look where all this prosperity's got us. Despite the fact that since 1960 we have been soaring economically, here's the harvest of the seed we've sown: we have doubled the divorce rate, tripled the teen suicide rate, quintupled the prison population.
The Paradox of Our Time in History is that we spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy it less. We have bigger houses and smaller families; more conveniences, but less time. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. These are the times of steep profits, and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes, but more divorce; of fancier houses, but broken homes. We have learned how to make a living, but not a life; we have added years to life, not life to years
Jesus demands of us a different way of living. When Jesus challenges us to give him everything we have, he is not just asking us to write a check, he wants all of us, all that we are, all of our spirit, time, and effort.
This is what so many of those who find themselves suddenly wealthy have a tough time figuring out. National Public Radio recently aired a program about a class of people who are actually ashamed of their new wealth and want to keep it a secret. They are ashamed of having money. They do not feel that they deserve it.
Contrast these folks with the poor widow in the temple. She knew what she had and she gave it, while the suddenly wealthy do not know what they have and do not know how to give it. Wealth seems to bring so much freedom and opportunity, but the sad fact is that it is worthless - and even shameful - if its owners do not know how to give of themselves fully and sacrificially.
The widow does not worry about who she is. She is not trying to find herself. She does not have any identity confusion. She knows that she is a child of God, and so she gives it all to God. She knows why she lives. That is the point is it not? She knows the answer. And the answer is not economic. The answer is spiritual.
We do not need a Big Game lottery to win big. In fact, sudden affluence can suck us into self-indulgence and self-destruction. Better to give all we have - body, mind and spirit - to the Lord God and trust in him and walk his way. God's way is better than soaring stocks and bulging bank accounts. It seems a little blasphemous to put it this way, but in this time of lotteries and big giveaways maybe this is the way we need to hear it. God is the only winning ticket.
-Robert Schuller in a book entitled You are Wonderful (Norwalk, Connecticut: The C.R. Gibson Company, 1987 p20.), tells the story of Mother Teresa's commentary on the widow's mite. She had a dream. She wanted to build an orphanage in Calcutta. Her superiors told her what superiors always tell people with dreams. "Building an orphanage costs big bucks. What kind of funding do you have?" Mother Teresa answered, "I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage." Her superiors were not unkind. Gently they said to her, "You cannot build an orphanage with three pennies. With three pennies, you can't do anything." "I know," she said, smiling, "but with God and three pennies I can do anything!" that is exactly the same attitude that the widow had in our text today. With God and two mites, great things can happen. When a person gives his or her life to God, great things can happen in that life.
We need the attitude of Mother Teresa. We need the attitude of this widow with the mites. It is an attitude that we find throughout the Bible. If we will do our mite, God will do his mightiness in our lives. God will multiply us and expand us and make our ordinary lives into super lives of super beings. We are superbeings. That is what the Bible says. We are the sons and daughters of God. What Jesus says is ACT LIKE IT. Act like you are God's child with God's power in your life. And you will be God's child with God's power. Amen.
Myers, David G. "Wanting More in an Age of Plenty." Christianity Today, April 24, 2000, 95.
Samuelson, Robert J. "... And the Limits of Wealth." The Washington Post, May 10, 2000, A29.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, November 10, 2000