Lent 5 year C
There's always an excuse for not giving
Lent 5 Year C 2004 –
There’s always an excuse for not giving
When I was living in London I was once asked to give a talk on world poverty to a group of sixth formers at a local school. I began by asking how much of the UK’s national income they thought was given to poorer countries in overseas aid. One boy thought for a moment and then ventured “ten per cent”. His neighbour responded with amazed derision, “Don’t be stupid, it’s got to be much more than that”.
The true figure is around one-third of one per cent. In other words – this country gives about one three-hundredth of its national income in overseas aid. (This is less than half of the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent.)
I mention this because the children were from a poor area of London – none of them were from very well-off families. But it seemed natural to them that a rich country should be generous to poorer countries. They did not have much themselves, and they saw it as only right that those who had a comfortable standard of living should give to those who do not.
But would they themselves have been prepared to give of their modest means to help those who were worse off than themselves? We will never know the answer to this question – I did not ask them. What we do know, however, is that within the Church of England those people who live in the poorer areas usually give a higher proportion of their income to the Church than those who live in the richer areas. Surprising, maybe – but true.
I would not wish to make generalisations from this about the greater generosity of poor people compared with those who are better off. Things aren’t so simple – one can always point to examples of tremendous generosity on the part of the rich as well as sacrificial generosity shown by some of the very poor (consider for example the hundreds of millions of dollars given away by Bill Gates for various charitable purposes). The point I am making, rather, is that contrary to what we might expect, a natural impulse to generosity is just as often found amongst those who are poor as amongst those who are rich; and quite often more so.
The question of how much of our money we give away applies to all of us. It is a decision to which, sooner or later, we all have to face up. So how do we go about it?
The easiest course of action is to be cautious. There are always plenty of seemingly good reasons for limiting our generosity. When we are young we are not earning very much, and saving to buy our own house. Then we have the mortgage to repay; we need to save for the future, to avoid becoming dependent on others. When we accumulate some savings, we realise that if we give away some of our investments we will move into a lower interest rate bracket. Perhaps we have an overdraft and credit card debts, which would make it imprudent to give out of what we do not possess.
But if we are brutally honest with ourselves, are these actually sound reasons, or are they really just excuses? One of the most demanding areas of Biblical teaching invites us to confront head on our anxieties about personal financial security, and not to allow these to get in the way of our giving. From a time several hundred years before Christ, the Jewish Law or Torah, stipulated that 10 per cent of one’s income – a tithe – should be given to God. In the New Testament, John the Baptist seems to say that you should give away half of what you possess, if it is surplus to your needs: “Anyone who has two tunics must share with the one who has none, and anyone with something to eat must do the same”. (Luke 3. 10). Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything and give to the poor, and to follow him, if he wished to fulfil God’s commands perfectly (Mt. 19. 21). And he particularly commended the widow who gave her last two coins to the Temple treasury (Mk. 12.44).
We see a dramatic example of spontaneous and effusive generosity in today’s gospel reading. Jesus is at Bethany, with Martha and Mary. Mary (some say this is Mary Magdalene, but there has always been some dispute about this) pours about a pint of perfume over Jesus’ feet, and wipes his feet with her hair. We are told that the nard (which would have come from India, over a thousand miles away) was worth a year’s wages, or three hundred denarii. Think of the impact today of anointing someone’s feet with a bottle of perfume which cost a year’s wages – say fifteen or twenty thousand pounds. Mary seems to know that Jesus is going to die soon, and that there should be no limit to her expression of sadness and grief. Judas Iscariot, however, thinks that she has been wasteful. His argument is, on the face of it, plausible enough: the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. (in other New Testament versions of the story he is not the only one who argues this. However, in St. John’s account, his motives are portrayed as selfish and corrupt: as the keeper of the disciples’ money, he is looking for a new opportunity to steal from the common purse).
We have, then a stark contrast. The disciple who is calculating, mercenary and selfish; and the woman who spares nothing in her demonstration of utter generosity. What seems by worldly standards to be profligate and reckless is her way of showing the height of her love and the depth of her grief at Jesus’ imminent suffering and death.
St. Paul said, “Remember this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”. (2 Corinthians 9. 6-7). Jesus knew that giving generously when all the pressures suggest caution somehow, mysteriously, gives rise to blessing – not just for those who receive what we give, but for ourselves as well. When we give sacrificially, we always receive something in return. This is a most difficult truth to learn. But it teaches us how to trust God, and somehow enables his purposes to be realised more fully than if we hold onto as much of our money as we can..
It also reminds us that much of what we have is not as result of our own work alone, but due to circumstances, good fortune, being born in the right country at the right time in history – in other words, due to God. There was once a clergyman who was visiting a farmer who said, “While you are here, I’ll give you my annual gift to the church”. He wrote out a cheque for five pounds. The clergyman said, “ All that God has done for you in this farm, which is clearly prospering, and you give this? You ought to give God £500 as a thank offering.” He added, “God gives sunlight, soil, rain and atmosphere to bring forth a crop. That’s about 93 percent of the work, leaving only 7 percent dependent upon you. I’m surprised God doesn’t paralyse your arm when you write out such a miserly amount.” Of course this isn’t always the best way to approach someone, but in that particular case, it worked. The farmer dropped to his knees and surrendered both himself and his money to God. He went into the house and told his wife what had happened. Her response was, “I have been praying for this for years.” And as time went on, not only did the man give to the church £5,000 a year rather than £5, but his whole life was changed. Something deep within him, which had been holding him prisoner for years, had been set free.
As the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert wrote, “Who shuts his hand has lost his gold. Who opens it hath it twice told”.