2 CORINTHIANS 9:1-15
It is hard to find true generosity these days. You know, that act of grace that humbles you and makes you ask, “Why me?” I think most of us like to think of ourselves as generous. But are we really? When I was in Richmond, VA I took a break from my search for an ordained call and worked at Good Will, loading and sorting people’s donations. It is there I learned that the old saying “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” is really false. My experience of loading hundreds of tube TVs that no one wanted into trucks taught me that one person’s trash is generally another person’s trash. So often the donations we received were people’s leftovers. Worn and torn clothing, barely functioning electronics. I mean, there was some good stuff. That’s the stuff we put on the floor. Our main job however, was not to put stuff on the floor, but to separate all the worthless stuff from the good stuff. And yet, people were given blank tax receipts where they could write off on their taxes whatever amount they claimed the stuff they no longer wanted was worth. Once, around Christmas, I remember a woman donated a complete set of genuine silver dining ware. When I received this donation, I almost wept. Because after five months of receiving people’s garbage, it astounds you to receive someone’s treasure. The Bible calls us to give our first fruits, the best of what we have to offer. But so often we give what is left over and we call that generosity.
As our verse today from 2 Corinthians says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” I find it funny that we quote this verse during stewardship season because we are trying to guilt people who are not giving cheerfully into giving cheerfully. In effect, saying God loves a cheerful giver only reminds us that we are not giving cheerfully, and makes us give not out of cheer but out of guilt. We say you should give freely, but within the same breath, we say if you don’t give ten percent you are not being faithful to God. This type of attitude, I think, negates the point of giving freely. In these chapters in 2 Corinthians, Paul is dealing with the offering to the struggling Jerusalem church. And in the previous chapter he declares, “The gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure for you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.’”
You see, the point of biblical generosity is not to say “if I give ten percent, I am done giving” or “if I don’t give ten percent, I am a bad Christian.” The point is that all we have, whether we worked for it or not, is given from God, and if we have abundance, part of the reason is so that we can help others in their lack.
In our 2 Corinthians chapter, Paul gives us the farming analogy of sowing and reaping as an analogy for giving. In some Christian circles, this is taken as a transaction between God and man. If I sow into God’s ministry, God will bless me financially in return. Scratch God’s back and God will give me a boat or a plane or at least a bonus. But in the previous chapter, Paul also talks about the manna from heaven, food provided from God without sowing or reaping. Anyone who farms knows that their interaction with the land isn’t simply a give-so-you-can-get transaction. To quote the Pillar New Testament Commentary on 2 Corinthians, “Human labor, while it is required and rewarded by God, is only secondary. It is God who gives all growth and who thus is not dependent on human instruments. The gift of the manna reveals the fundamental goodness of the Creator – not merely toward Israel, but toward all human beings – a goodness present and manifest in the whole creation, which was made for us and which, from its fields, nurtures us and provides for our daily needs” ( Seifrid, pg 353). Now don’t get me wrong, 1 Corinthians 9:14 says a minister of the Gospel deserves his or her wages, because we are working towards a spiritual harvest. But make no mistake, God doesn’t need your money. It is already his. And the church does not have an inherent right to your money. The scripture tells us that we give in order to reap a harvest from the Lord. The church does not exist for itself. It does not exist just to keep the doors open or to put food on my table. The church exists for the harvest. What is that harvest? That is the subject of next week’s sermon.
Finally, I would like to discuss generosity and our notions of fairness. Because our notion of fairness is really at the heart of how we govern the church and how we govern our nation. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard raises quite prominently this issue of fairness. Why should those who work only an hour get paid the same amount as those who worked in the heat of the day? That does seem unfair. Many scholars think the laborers who worked the heat of the day were the Jewish Christians or the people of Israel, people who had supposedly fulfilled the commands of the Law, people who were by biology children of Abraham. Those who come late are the Gentiles, the undesirables, the riff raff. And the owner of the vineyard sets up the conflict by paying the last first and the first last. The first have to watch while the last receive benefits that they didn’t really work for.
We should note the difference between Jesus’ parable and another well-known parable taught at the time by rabbis. To quote the Pillar New Testament Commentary on Matthew, “It concerns a king who hired workmen to work in his vineyard. One of them worked skillfully, and the king took him by the hand and spent most of the day talking with him. When the laborers were paid, this man received the same as the others. They grumbled and said, ‘We toiled all the day, whereas this man toiled for two hours, and yet the king has given him his full wage!’ The king said to them, ‘What cause have you for grumbling? This man in two hours did more good work than you in a whole day.’ Clearly the story made quite an appeal to the rabbis, and we can understand that. The natural man assumes that reward is geared to merit. Jesus is pointing out that God does not deal with us on the basis of merit but of grace. The love of God in all its fullness is poured out on sinners, and they receive infinitely more than they deserve. Their parable underlines the truth that God’s way is always the way of grace.”
It would seem from this parable that God’s definition of fairness, which is connected to the biblical view on generosity, is not treating everyone the same, not giving us what we deserve, but giving us what we need. And if you have a problem with the Lord’s generosity, that is your problem and not his. To quote the Master in this parable, “Are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The thing about grace and generosity is it reveals the state of our own hearts when we see it. All the Gospels record the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume before his death. The Gospel of John in chapter 12 tells us that Mary Lazarus’s sister was the one to anoint him and it was Judas Iscariot who protested saying, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John tells us that this was not an honest question because Judas was a thief and stole from the common purse. Often we react most strongly to that in others that reminds us of our own faults. Judas was questioning Mary’s generosity because he himself was not generous. Not only was he not generous, he was dishonest and a thief. Her act of generosity revealed his lack of generosity. It revealed his sin. He had found a way to justify himself in his own mind as a good steward. I am sure he found a way to justify betraying Jesus as doing a service to the nation. He convinced himself that a lie was the Truth. And when faced with the Truth, he did not choose repentance; instead he chose to lash out and project his sin on another.
There are reasonable questions to be raised about how the money we are giving is used and even how our tax money is used. Questions about governance, accountability, and effectiveness. But Jesus asked the rich young man to give away everything he had not to help the poor but to help the rich young man. Jesus tells us where our treasure is, that is where our heart will be also. We give generously, yes to help others, but we also give generously to help ourselves. For it all belongs to the Lord. And giving generously, according to our ability, affirms our faith in the generosity of God.
So whether you give 5%, 10%, or 50% of your income, let us give generously out of the abundance of our hearts, out of a desire to see a harvest for the Kingdom. Let us give generously, may it be in our families, our churches, or our government. Let us confess with our lips that it all belongs to you, oh Lord, and we give thee but thy own.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit amen.