Great Themes of the Bible (#22-Generosity)

"But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand."

There is an African proverb that says: "Every selfish person is a pauper." As with many proverbs, this one may strike you as misguided because of the possibility that someone who has a lot of money and possessions may behave selfishly. But that is precisely the point of the proverb. A homeless person may be wealthy; he shares the meager things he has, tells others like himself where to find an occasional hot meal, and cares about other people. A millionaire may be a pauper; he hoards everything under his control, lives in fear that he will lose his wealth, and cares only for himself.

Neither selfishness nor generosity is primarily about money. Both are about life perspective. Both are about attitudes toward people. Both are about basic spirituality.

Generous souls are light-hearted and set free from slavery to things; selfish souls are nervous and possessed by the things they possess. Generous people know that God owns it all, can enjoy whatever God entrusts to them, and can give some of it away easily and freely when called upon; selfish people are under the illusion that their "stuff" belongs to them, define their security in terms of it, and thus resent anyone's request that they turn lose any of it. Generous people enjoy the freedom of their security on the basis of spiritual resources; selfish people are tyrannized by the insecurity of thinking they are defined by something other than spiritual qualities.

I have been subjected to a great deal of good-natured teasing during the years I have preached for this church because of my failure to preach on giving. I suppose it's all right at this point to let you know why I seldom touch the topic. My conviction on the matter is just this simple: Preaching about money is the poorest of all ways to teach generosity. If, on the other hand, people grasp the goodness of God to them, they will find ways to express their gratitude to him — first with their hearts and minds and then with everything else God has entrusted to them. On the other hand, I grant that the use we make of money is a good barometer to our general spiritual health. Look at the way today's text illustrates this principle.

Gifts for the Temple

The united Kingdom of Israel had three kings. Saul, David, and Solomon reigned in succession — with David the key figure of the three. David longed for Israel to have a well-defined national life with Jerusalem as its capital and a glorious temple to Yahweh dominating the city. Because of David's personal spiritual failures, it was revealed to him that he would not be allowed to erect the temple. That task would fall to his son and heir, Solomon. Yet David was given the plan for the temple and permitted to pass it along to Solomon. In his farewell speech to the nation, he endorsed his son and called on the people to be generous in their gifts toward the construction of the center for worship that had long been his dream.

David praised the LORD in the presence of the whole assembly, saying,

"Praise be to you, O LORD,
God of our father Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom;
you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.
Now, our God, we give you thanks,
and praise your glorious name.

"But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. O LORD our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name, it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things have I given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. O LORD, God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep this desire in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you. And give my son Solomon the wholehearted devotion to keep your commands, requirements and decrees and to do everything to build the palatial structure for which I have provided" (1 Chron. 29:10-19).
What a marvelous prayer — one that we might all consider praying with our families on Thanksgiving Day this year. Although the temple is a concern of the prayer, it is hardly its focus. God himself is the focus. It is a prayer of praise to him for his goodness to his people. He alone is worthy of the glory, majesty, and splendor of all things in heaven and on earth. And for mere mortals — "aliens and strangers" in the sight of an Everlasting God — to be permitted to worship him is a privilege greater than we could have asked. So his petition is not for the building of the temple so much as for his son to be faithful to Yahweh and to lead the nation in uprightness. In the meanwhile, he pleads for the construction of the temple and praises the Lord for allowing him and the rest of the Israelites to give to its completion. So he prayed: "Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand."

King David had a generous spirit. He knew that everything in his control was a gift from God, so he knew he was giving Yahweh only such things as were his already! So there was no trace of a selfish, begrudging spirit in what he did. And his personal example of generosity surely encouraged the great outpouring of gifts that came from the rest of the people. Humility, gratitude, joy, and obedience were demonstrated by generosity.

"But Do We Have to Tithe?"

Earlier I made the claim that it is better to foster gratitude for grace than to say a lot about giving money. Perhaps I'm wrong. But let me give you a bit more of the reasoning that leads me to that conclusion.

When the subject on the floor is giving, the bottom-line question will eventually be this: How much? Specifically, the question I have been asked to answer time and again is "Are Christians under the ‘tithing law' of the Old Testament?" Here's my smarty-pants answer, always given with a smile and wink lest someone slap me: "Yeah, most Christians are around 5 percent or more ‘under' the tithe!"

In case you don't know, tithing is a 10-percent donation of one's income to the Lord. The Law of Moses certainly commanded it. "A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD" (Lev. 27:30). Prophets who came much later than Moses said that an Israelite's failure to pay the Lord's tithe was nothing less than robbing God (cf. Mal. 3:6-12). In addition to the mandatory tithe, there were other sacrifices and offerings faithful Israelites were expected to make. In particular, Amos was a prophet of social justice who challenged the people to care for the weakest and poorest members of their community and to avoid the temptation to selfishness and greed.

Insofar as I can tell, Jesus never abolished or wiped out the tithing rule. He only chided some legalistic Jews for tithing even the tiny herb gardens they kept while simultaneously neglecting the major issues of justice, mercy, and spiritual integrity (cf. Matt. 23:23). Ah, and that is where the discussion of tithing tends to land us still, i.e., smack dab in the middle of a legalistic dispute. Didn't the Law of Moses get superceded by the Gospel of Grace? So do we really have to tithe? If so, should we give 10 percent of gross or net income? If net, are we obligated to tithe only our take-home pay or that amount plus retirement benefits and health insurance? See how legalistic we get in trying to settle the tithing question?

New Testament guidelines shun percentages for principles when talking about giving by Christians. So we have exhortations like this: "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:7). A ten-percent rule would incline some of us to think that my Sunday tithe is God's and the rest is ours. Both in David's prayer and in Paul's teaching, everything is presumed to belong to God — not just a token or mandated percentage.

Rather than think that freedom from the Law of Moses permits us to cut 10 percent down to 4 percent, why shouldn't we shoot for 15 or 20 or 30 percent? Selfishness and greed tend to make us think in terms of minimums for giving. Generosity takes us in the opposite direction.

In a summary of research released on April 5, 2000, George Barna reports that only 8 percent of Christians tithed their income to their churches in 1999. Interestingly, he found that 33 percent of Christians say it is impossible for them to get ahead in life because they have saddled themselves with such a burden of financial debt. On the other hand, I'm not fully convinced that prosperity would automatically generate more giving. For several years now, studies from various sources have shown that less- wealthy Americans give a greater percentage of their income to churches and charities than their wealthier counterparts. Time reported that those who earned under $10,000 in 1998 gave 5.2 percent of their income, people earning $10,000 to $19,999 gave a smaller 3.3 percent, and those who earned between $75,000 and $99,999 gave only 1.6 percent of their earnings.

Percentage formulas won't produce larger gifts. Only a generous heart can do that. In what he irreverently dubbed "The Reverse Catechism," Mark Twain wrote:

What is the chief end of man? — to get rich. In what way? — dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one and only true? Money is God. Gold and Greenbacks and Stock — father, son, and ghosts of same, three persons in one; these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme.
For anyone whose "creed" is correctly represented in Twain's acrid quote, a tithing law is irrelevant. His or her spirit is infected with greed.

Conclusion

You know the New Testament story of the widow's gift that Jesus honored. Luke tells it this way:

As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on" (Luke 21:1-4).
Generosity is not an amount but a spirit. The spirit of this unnamed woman has been duplicated in our own time by Miss Oseola McCarty. Born March 7, 1908, she died September 26, 1999. She dropped out of school at 12 to take care of her sick aunt. She never went back to school but began a lifelong career of washing and ironing clothes — preferring a washboard to modern washing machines. She retired at age 86.

She tithed to Friendship Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, paid her bills, and made monthly payments on her insurance and burial plot. Everything left over went into the bank. "The Lord portioned out the good things in life to me just fine," she said. "Who needs any more?" Miss McCarty proved Soren Kierkegaard correct: "It is more blessed to give than to receive, but then it is also more blessed to be able to do without than to have to have."

About five years before her death, Oseola McCarty became a national celebrity by giving $150,000 — sixth-tenths of her life savings — to found a scholarship for poor children wanting to attend the University of Southern Mississippi.

People with generous spirits are delivered from the tyranny of everyday worry and aggravation over money. They model humility. They are able to live healthy spiritual lives that are secure and deeply contented. They are able to receive the approval and blessing of their Lord.

Selfish people are paupers, and generous souls are spiritual millionaires.




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