by Mel Zerner
Living in Australia or New Zealand, many of us are blessed to lead comfortable lifestyles. We may have well-appointed homes with the latest in material possessions, the opportunity to take regular holidays and plenty of fine food to enjoy.
Sure, there are people in our societies, communities and even in our own congregations, who don’t have enough food, clothing, shelter and income to be comfortable like us. We may support welfare agencies to assist these people. But are we generous enough?
It is never easy to talk about money or giving, even among Christians. All of us still battle with our selfish – even greedy – human nature. Our ‘hip-pocket nerve’ is one of the most difficult to bring under the Lordship of Christ.
So what does Jesus say about giving? He watched folks giving to attract attention. Interestingly, none of these people is individually highlighted in Scripture. Who is? A poor widow. Jesus calls his disciples and says, ‘This poor widow has put more in the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on’ (Mark 12:41–44).
We tend to notice glamour and power, Jesus sees true generosity.
Indeed giving is central and significant to Christian living and identity. In the early church, Christians became known for the way they shared their possessions with one another. In Acts 20:35b we read, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive (or to keep)’.
When we think of giving, it is usually in terms of money, charity or donations. In the early church, giving did not just involve money, but also other possessions. It was characterised as hospitality, which consisted of personal expressions of Christian love to fellow believers. It included meeting the pressing physical needs of the local poor, strangers and travelling Christians, and also providing somewhere for believers to meet and worship. The Greek word for ‘hospitality’ literally means ‘love for the stranger’. Charitable giving as the proper response to God’s mercy was considered a mark of true spirituality. Generosity is a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22) and liberal giving is a gift of the spirit (Romans 12:8).
Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians features a number of principles for giving. Christians ought to share their possessions generously, enthusiastically, deliberately and sensibly (2 Corinthians 8 and 9) and even ‘compete’ in being generous.
The earliest Christians regarded themselves firstly as members of the body of Christ, and took for granted their obligations to support one another materially when necessary. Have we as Christians today drifted from this point of view? A rich Christian may not be a contradiction in terms, but a mean and greedy Christian certainly is.
In 2 Corinthians 8:1–9, Paul addresses Christian generosity in the context of a collection he was raising among Gentile churches for poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. He makes a number of points about the gift of giving: Generosity is a gift from God. The willingness and ability to give is, in itself, an act of God’s grace.
Paul places the gift of generosity alongside other gifts of God’s grace that the Holy Spirit gives or prompts in a believer’s heart – faith, speech, knowledge, sincerity and love. As well as these, he encourages the Christians in Corinth to excel in the ‘gift of giving’.
But how do we know how much to give? Or, more correctly, how much of God’s money entrusted to us shall we keep for ourselves and our needs? After all, it has been given to us to be used in his service for the benefit of all people.
Paul’s describes our donations as a ‘grace or gift’ which God has provided. It’s impossible to have the ‘grace of giving’ without reflecting the love of God.
So how much do we give? The answer is simple: Imitate Christ. Paul said: ’You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9).
In seeking to imitate Christ, it is the spirit in which Jesus acts that is all important. When Paul encouraged the Corinthians to be generous, he reminded them of Christ’s generosity. The challenge for us is to think like Jesus and, as we meditate on his grace, we’ll give our lives to him.
Mel Zerner is a member of the LCA’s General Church Board and of the LCA Finance Audit and Risk Committee, and Director of Messenger Zerner Chartered Accountants. He is also a member of St Peters Lutheran Church, Blackwood in suburban Adelaide. His reflections here were in part inspired by the book Beyond Greed, written by Moore College lecturer Brian Rossner.