August 21, 2011
The Sermon On the Mount
Living Generous Lives
A friend of mine told me about an interesting scene he witnessed in a church he visited. When the offering was taken he passed the plate to a man sitting next to him, and the man placed a gift in the plate. Evidently the man didn’t like something that came later in the service. When the service concluded the man got up from his seat and said I want my money back. He actually went in search of one of the ushers to say he wanted his money back. Maybe he didn’t like the sermon! I have thought about the fact that we take the offering after the sermon. Many businesses offer a money back guarantee. I have yet to see a church do so.
We are continuing our series of messages from the Sermon On the Mount. I don’t know if we’ll go through the entire sermon in one series. There is so much to absorb in the Sermon On the Mount that we might do well to break it up into more than one series.
Last week, as we studied the passage about loving our enemies, I thought that’s about as tough as it gets in the Sermon On the Mount. That’s a tough passage and a very tall order. But today we come to a passage that is also very difficult, because it speaks of generosity. We live in challenging times for generosity. The economic downturn has increased the need for generosity while also making less gifts available.
The challenging economy also generates fear and insecurity, and fear and insecurity tell us we should hold tighter to what we have. Fear and insecurity will tell us we work hard for what we have and to give some of it away is foolish. But we have a God-given impulse for generosity. When we are confronted by need we are moved by compassion to give of our resources.
Jesus begins this passage with the assumption of giving.
People often tell me a version of this statement – when I win the lottery, I’m going to give the church part of my winnings. I always offer the same response – first, the tithe on gambling is 30%, not 10%, and when I see your picture in the paper holding that big lottery check I will come to your house to pick up the check. Just a gentle reminder.
Jesus expresses an assumption of generosity in this passage. In the first verse of this passage Jesus uses the word righteousness in place of the word giving. Though he uses the word righteousness he means the act of giving. The two words are used interchangeably here, as giving is just something a righteous person does. Giving is not spoken of here as a requirement; giving is just in the nature of righteousness. Giving is a natural response to the love of God. A good example of this is in Acts 2:42-47, where Luke speaks of how the early church had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (44-45). No one was compelled to give anything, and no one had to be asked; it was just a natural expression of who the church was. They simply responded in generosity.
This is also evidence, I believe, of how the Scriptures make it very clear there is not only an individual calling to help the poor, but a corporate calling as well.
The care for the poor is very strong throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, we see it written into the Law. In Leviticus 19:9-10 we read When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. In Deuteronomy 24:19-21 we read When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Deuteronomy 26:12-13 says When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. Then say to the Lord you God: “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have
given it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus speaks in very strong language of the calling to care for those who are the least of these (Matthew 25:45). The first ministry of the church was caring for the poor, and Paul spent a good deal of time raising money for those who were struggling and in need.
There has been much talk in recent decades that charity should be the domain solely of churches and individuals, not the government, but I don’t believe it is a job that can be accomplished by the church or individuals alone. The need, not only in our society but globally, is far too great. One of the evidences, I think, of the influence of faith upon our government is the idea that we have a corporate responsibility to care for those who are in need. We are a generous nation, we are people willing to give when confronted by need and we can never back away from that generosity.
Jesus then speaks of the motivation for giving.
People sometimes ask me if I tithe, do I figure the tithe on my net income or my gross income? As tempting as it is for me to say your gross income, of course, that is really not the point. Give what you give; that is between you and God. But I will say that we have to be careful we don’t think of giving in terms of a balance sheet and God as an accountant, keeping track of everything in very specific ways. Is Dave giving the right percentage? Let’s see; I calculated last quarter and he was %0.05 of where he should be. That way of giving makes it more about rules and regulations than love, and Jesus is asking us to give out of love, not a sense of obligation. It is love that is the motivation for giving, as love is the foundation of everything Jesus teaches.
When you are in love with someone, you talk about what you would give to them. How many of you, when you were dating, said something such as I would give you the moon and the stars if I could. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? And no one would say in return Well, you can’t give the moon and the stars, so how much cash does that translate into? We know someone can’t give the moon and the stars but the idea they would give something momentous because of love is very touching, isn’t it? Love compels us to give.
That’s why the O. Henry Story The Gift of the Magi is so touching. It’s not advent, but it’s a great story, about a young couple with so little they cannot buy each other Christmas presents. She sells her hair to buy a chain for his watch and he sells his watch to buy her a set of combs for her hair.
The compelling power of love to be generous. The struggles of life, though, can quench that power of generosity, and we must guard against that temptation.
Giving is its own reward.
The irony of giving is this – the one who gives only for the reward will not receive much of a reward, but the one who gives without expecting a reward, will receive the greatest reward. If my motive in giving is only to try and impress others, impressing others is the only reward I will ever receive. And that is a reward of sorts, but it is neither a deep nor meaningful reward. But the one who does not expect a reward will receive the greater reward, because reward is a byproduct of our giving, not an end in itself. When we giving without expecting a reward we actually find a richer reward because we receive the joy in giving to others and making a difference in their lives, which is a much greater gift.
Scripture doesn’t talk in terms of giving in order to receive material rewards. This is the problem with the prosperity gospel, which promises a material blessing, which is a distortion of what Jesus teaches. The book of Job certainly presents a challenge to the prosperity gospel. Job loses everything and his friends assume he has done something wrong, but he hasn’t. Job didn’t do anything wrong; he was the epitome of a righteous and good man. The very idea that the “Book of Job” was written to contradict is that goodness and material prosperity go hand in hand (The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, rev. ed. by William Barclay). There is not an automatic connection between being a good person and being rewarded as a result. There are many, many people who have done the right things in terms of getting an education and working hard, but they have not been rewarded; in fact, many have lost their jobs. Their situation is made more painful because they wonder why, when they have done what is the right, they are not prospering.
Recognition isn’t lasting anyway. Years ago, while attending a camp on a college campus, I noticed a plaque in the lobby of the dorm where we were staying. It was several days before I even noticed the plaque. It was easy to miss because there was a big plant in front of it, the brass the sign was made from looked like it hadn’t been polished in years, and there was a coating of dust and cobwebs on it as well. Out of curiosity, I asked the student sitting at the welcome desk if he knew anything about the person named on the plaque. He said, what plaque? I pointed it out and he said I have no earthly idea. I’ve never noticed it before. It turns out the person gave most of the money to construct the dorm. At some point there was probably a nice ceremony recognizing the gift, but that was long ago forgotten. But then I wondered about the friendships that were forged in that dorm over the years. The discussions that changed a life. The lessons learned. Those are true gifts. The recognition came and went, but the effect of the gift lives on decades after the gift was given.
Living Generous Lives. We, who have been given so much, may we live generously. May we pray.