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Saturday, 31 August 2013

The impossible demand of constant generosity

A member of our congregation recently asked me for my views on tithing. Tithing involves giving 10% of your income to God and is a practice which comes from teaching in the Old Testament. This person had concerns about the way in which the practice was used among churches in his home country which resulted in pastors becoming rich at the expense of their congregations. Christine will confirm that that is not the case here!

In discussing this issue with him I talked about the passage we have heard this morning from 2 Corinthians 9 in which it says that “God loves the one who gives gladly” or God loves a cheerful giver. I said that, instead of fixing an amount for how much we ought to give and then giving out of a sense of duty, the New Testament encourages us to be generous with all that we have and are, as the only possible response to a God who genuinely gives all he has for us.

The starting point for thinking about our giving as Christians, then, is what God has already done for us. In 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about God supplying all that we need and elsewhere in the New Testament we read of Jesus giving up all he had, even his own life, in order that we might receive all that God has to give us. We often ask ‘what do you give the person who has everything?’ but the question we really need to ask is ‘what do you give to the person who has given everything?’ The answer is that you give generously yourself as an act of thanksgiving for all that that person has done for you. 

However, that does not answer the specific question of precisely what we are to give. One of the attractions of tithing is that it sets a specific measure against which we can then assess our own giving. Are we giving enough or too little? If the measure is 10% of our income then we can easily work out the answer, but if the measure is generosity then we are not so sure. We have to decide for ourselves what to give rather than being told by someone else.

If the measure is 10%, then we know when we have given enough and can stop giving because we have fulfilled our duty but, if the measure is the generosity of God, then we are actually forever in his debt and can never give enough – there is then always more that we can give.

That is the point of our Gospel reading – the story of the Rich Young Man. His question to Jesus was essentially about measurement. How could he know when he had done everything necessary to receive eternal life? Jesus took him through the traditional measures – the keeping of the Commandments – but then made it clear that simply keeping these was not enough. “If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said, “go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor.” 

By saying this, Jesus was making an impossible demand; one that the young man could not meet. Why ask something of the young man that he could not meet so that he went away sad? Why not rather ask him to do something that he could manage – giving 10 or 15 or 20%?  

Jesus was making the point that there are no measures which are enough when it comes to the generosity of God. There is nothing we can give that is enough to earn God’s love and generosity towards us. Instead, it is freely given and once we receive it there is also no limit to the giving that we can do in response to that love. God’s extravagant generosity – giving all he has, even his own life – calls for similar generosity in us.

By making his impossible demand of this young man, Jesus was saying there are no limits, there is no enough, there is no measure; there is only the generosity of giving. So, for each one of us, there is always the challenge to change; to give more, to become more generous.

Each year when we talk about Church finances in our PCC we say that during Stewardship Month we must make clear the difficult financial situation of the church. We must make it clear that if we continue with a shortfall year on year that in a very few years we will run out of money. That is the reality of our financial situation which we haven’t yet resolved. It won’t take many more years before we reach that situation. So, we do need more giving, more Gift Aid, more fundraising, more halls income, more grants and so on. All that is true, but it is not the reason the New Testament gives for our giving.

What the New Testament says is that God is extravagantly generous towards us; he gives us life and he gives us the life of Jesus. There is no limit to what we can give back to him for all that he has given to us and therefore we can and should always be challenged to give more to him in response. How we do that is for us to decide in relation to our money, time and talents in the context of care for our environment and our community. There is no measure to say that we have given enough, instead there is this impossible demand of constant generosity to be a constant challenge to us.

It can sound demanding and pressured and yet we know that real generosity is actually a joyful, liberating experience. It is when we hold on to possessions and go grasping after more that we are exhibiting a mean spirit and therefore experience anxiety and worry. To give is not only liberating, it also enables us to receive from God in all sorts of other ways which bless and enhance our experience of life. This is not a quid pro quo, as some churches seem to suggest. Financial wealth and success does not follow as a result of genuinely giving generously in response to God’s love, but we do in all sorts of other ways knowing love, friendship, trust and peace in ways that are never felt by those who are grasping and lacking in generosity. May all our giving be in these ways and for these reasons!
Rickie Lee Jones - Falling Up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A great piece Jonathan, answers the question very well.