I can picture the street named “Habersham” as I write. It is one of the most beautiful streets in Buckhead, Atlanta. This time of year it is especially magnificent. Hundreds of dogwood trees decorate the landscape and the azaleas bloom with vibrant color. The multi-million dollar plantation-style mansions sit on multiple acres of natural beauty. I understand the Catholic archbishop’s desire to live in one. And I understand why he has chosen to move somewhere else.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory has been living in a 6400 square-foot, Tudor-style mansion valued at well over two million dollars. The land and money for the archbishop’s mansion was donated by Joseph Mitchell, the nephew of Margaret Mitchell, the well-known author of Gone With the Wind. I won’t describe the many interesting amenities of this mansion because that list has frequented the news. I will say that the word “lavish” would be most accurate.
The archbishop enjoyed his mansion’s amenities for three months but said he would move if the church council advised him to make that choice. That “advice” seems to have come, as a result of the current pope’s recent actions, and the wishes of many in his congregation. A recent Huffington Post article reported that last week, Pope Francis removed German bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst after he spent $43 million on a new residence and related renovations. Apparently the Atlanta mansion was not a singular occurrence.
Pope Francis sent out a message to those in Catholic leadership denouncing the “idolatry of money,” self-indulgence and “insidious worldliness.” That is the statement that prompted this blog post.
All of us realize that this leadership issue is not a new one, and not limited to any one denomination. I remember the headlines about Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s 10,226-square-foot mansion, complete with 25 room-sized closets, five stories and air-conditioned doghouses. When is our lifestyle and leadership at odds with our witness?
Jesus offended the Jewish Pharisees, Sadducees and elders, condemning their hearts and actions. Those “spiritual leaders” were the very people who plotted, schemed, and eventually succeeded in killing God’s own Son. Why did those men despise Jesus? God’s Son had condemned them for the way they had chosen to live, and the way they had chosen to do their ministries.
Jesus was in the temple, for the last time before his death. It was the week of Passover and the Pharisees had been trying to entrap him. Some of his final words to those who claimed the title of “leader” were, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:25-26).
The problems of greed and self-indulgence will exist as long as the world endures. I like that Pope Francis has chosen to lead by example. The caution is this: the example of the outward life must match the character and integrity of the heart. “The inside of the cup and dish” determines whether or not the outside is truly clean, or just appears to be.
This is a great week to focus on “the inside” motivation of our public witness. I attended the funeral for a friend’s mother recently and the pastor, Ellis Orozco, told us that our works on earth don’t exempt us from illness, pain and other indiscriminate consequences of living earthly lives. He said, “Our works don’t save us, but they do follow us to heaven.”
There is a story about a church leader who arrived in heaven, anxious to see the mansion that Jesus had built for him. When St. Peter greeted him at the gate, the first thing he said was, “Could you take me to my mansion?” St. Peter quietly agreed. The two of them arrived on a barren street, containing small run-down looking homes. The church leader started getting nervous when St. Peter started towards a door. “Wait!” he said, “This isn’t the mansion I was expecting.” St. Peter turned to him and said, “This is the best the Lord could build with the materials you sent him.”
This is a good week to prepare our hearts for Easter and make the choice to lead genuine lives, motivated by genuine love and gratitude for Jesus. He gave his life so that we could live in an eternal mansion someday. I hope all of us will have acres of dogwoods, azaleas and a glorious balcony view of God’s throne!