Money Matters – Giving – What does the New Testament say?
A Sermon Preached by the Rector, Rev Chris Williams as part of the Money Matters series
24 September 2017
This is the final session in September where we are considering God’s plan for our money. Over the last few months we have considered the challenges in Justin Welby’s book Dethroning Mammon. At the beginning of September we looked at the generosity of God expressed both through creation and through the gift of Jesus, stopping to consider the woman who made the extraordinary act of worship by anointing Jesus’ feet with very expensive perfume. Last week we looked at the man who thought that it was his right to keep what he had earned – only to die before he could enjoy it. At the prayer meeting last Friday week we looked at the rich young man who came to Jesus confident in his perfect life but who could not let go of his wealth. We also considered the woman who, in giving two copper coins, actually gave all she owned. Two weeks ago we looked at what the Old Testament said about money – and, in particular, what we should give.
Then, we saw that, before the law of Moses, giving was an act of gratitude to God but was always voluntarily, and there was no requirement, no amount, no stipulation, and no frequency placed upon them to give. With the introduction of the law through Moses, giving became conditional – 23% in fact. This was given for the national government to run the priestly programme, the national religious programme, and the welfare programme. On top of that were freewill offerings – the ‘firstfruits’ which, again, had no conditions of amount or regularity, but which consisted of the first and best that people received in response to God’s generosity.
Undergirding all this is the sense that giving was always expected and it came with promises of blessing for the generous – and not-such-good-things for the greedy or stingy!
So, we have a good idea of what was required of the Israelites in the OT – the world, in fact, inhabited by Jesus and the disciples.
So, if we look to the OT to answer the question ‘How much should I give?’ The answer would be 23% and freewill offerings on top.
But is that what we should be giving today? Well, probably not, because the 23% was very close in practice to what we might call a tax today. It paid for the smooth running of society. It’s interesting to note, though, that although this money was used for many purposes – for civic as well as religious, it was all considered God’s money – in fact God considered it his as the challenge in Malachi 3:8-and onwards makes clear:
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.
If the Old Testament requirement is similar to our tax today – do we pay all our taxes? We don’t live under the same law today – but the underlying fact that what we do with our money is ultimately an expression of our attitude to God, remains – as do the sowing and reaping metaphors – of which more in a minute.
The fact remains that, when we come to the New Testament we find nothing that implies we are compelled, as Christians, to give a certain amount or at certain times. Does the New Testament have anything to say about money then? Well, if you’ve been listening, you’ll know the answer is ‘yes’ – with knobs on!
Both our Bible passages today refer implicitly or explicitly to the act of sowing and reaping:
The first passage in Corinthians says: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.
The words of Jesus in Luke say:
Give and it will be given to you. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
We have this image of a farmer sowing his seed – literally putting into the earth something which could be used to feed and sustain him and his family. But of course, he knows that with the right conditions, this sacrifice will pay off by producing many times more. Every year he must decide how much to keep for his own need – knowing that what he gives (what he sows) will create so much more.
This is a simple, yet extremely profound principle which applies to more than corn and wheat. And it’s a truth that permeates the whole of the Christian faith – this concept that, in giving something, you are setting in motion a train of events that will lead to a harvest and blessing. The farmer then has the same challenge – how much to keep, how much to sow?
Last week in the Third Sunday discussion group I shared a simple image that I heard 30 years ago and which has stuck with me ever since. We all receive something – whether it’s a benefits cheque or a fat-cat income. But we all have a choice as to how much we keep. Imagine a bowl under a flow of seed (to keep the agricultural metaphor going). The bowl represents how much we keep – in possessions, or in savings – we choose how large our bowl is – which then determines how much we give away.
OK, so we have been reminded of this universal formula that what we sow we reap. So how much should we sow? Well, the Corinthians passage continues: Each person should give what they have decided in their heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. The fact that people will give, is a given to the writer of Corinthians – but the amount is not. I hope that at the end of my talk this morning, no one feels compelled to do anything. Encouraged – yes, motivated – yes, having a stronger faith – yes, excited – yes. But not compelled to give and certainly not to give grudgingly.
In fact, I say, unless you can give cheerfully – then don’t give at all. Give the highest amount that you can give cheerfully; keep the rest. I’m quite serious. This passage, if it has any truth to impart – makes it clear that within the church, giving must be motivated by faith, by love, by joy, and as a response to an overwhelmingly abundant and extravagant God – but never grudgingly, reluctantly or under compulsion. And in my experience, those Christians who give most cheerfully are usually the most generous and those who are most generous are the most cheerful. And it is those who willingly and cheerfully follow God who will be used by God to make a difference because, as the passage says: God is able to make all grace abound to you so that in all things at all times having all that you need you will abound in every good work. What a promise!
You see, actually, God isn’t particularly concerned about the bottom line – but he is very interested in our attitudes and motivations. To do anything out of compulsion and reluctantly is not what giving, or anything in the Christian life, is about. We are called to live generously, lovingly, faithfully, worshipfully. But then we notice that the Bible makes it very clear that to live in such a way has an effect on our money – including the bottom line. Ironically, when we are living in accordance with God’s plan then we discover that we’re actually not so concerned about the bottom line after all.
Paul says we mustn’t give reluctantly. Now, we need to make a distinction here between reluctance and obedience. Some of us give – and we may give sacrificially – it may be difficult – it may be at a cost to us – but we do so willingly, even cheerfully, because we are convinced it is the right thing to do out of obedience and in response to God’s mercy. It may be hard – but it’s not reluctant.
So, again, how much should we give (which, of course, also answers the question ‘how much can I keep?’). If you want a figure, then 10% is a good place to start. It’s a figure that has been used in the church for centuries – and it’s one the church of England advocates. But if we look at the New Testament – and particularly Jesus – well, three examples of many: Zacchaeus the tax collector, after following Jesus gave away half his wealth – so, 50%. The proud young man who came to Jesus confident that he had lived an exemplary life was told by Jesus “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” That’s 100% of his possessions! And the powerful story of the widow’s mite – two copper coins that represented all she had. Again, 100%. So, if you really want to be biblical…!
Technically, the answer to the question is ‘as much as you possibly can’ – because giving is so exciting and leads to so much blessing for you and others that, well, why wouldn’t you? And of course I am ultimately giving in response to the God who has given everything to me. And I’m being serious. Any fixed response is simply not scriptural. If you want to use 10% as a starting point, then great – but it’s only a starting point. But, each of us will have to respond to that according to our own conscience and our own circumstances – and cheerfully.
We must acknowledge that some, particularly those on low incomes, may struggle – although I have known many people who have given 10%, despite receiving very little income. And we mustn’t forget that giving isn’t always as simple as it may sound. We live in a society in which debt and borrowing is the norm – that will affect how much you have to give. Debt is not conducive to generosity, is it? Some people are in relationships where partners may not agree on an amount or where one person may not be a Christian and may be unhappy with giving anything. Of course, God understands all this.
Like I said – we do what we can, yes, but God is more interested in your heart and your motivations. Yes, money is important, but we are also able to give in many other creative ways (and that’s whether we already give financially or not). Most of the beautiful flowers we see in this church are paid for by those who prepare them, people clean the church and mow the lawns free of charge, people offer their time, and skills, resources and cars to the church and those in need, free of charge. All acts of kindness and generosity which are in response to God’s generosity to us – and which are certainly seen by God – if not always by us.
This subject is, to me, so exciting. It offers to us a new way of being – one that seems counter-cultural particularly in these selfish and greedy times in which we live – but is in fact connecting us with a deep and ancient truth: what we sow, we reap.
This is such a loaded subject and the Bible says so much more that we haven’t looked at, but I want to end this series where we started – by reminding ourselves that, however generous we may be, however sacrificial, we can never out-give God. When we find God, and when we comprehend the wonderful gift of creation and particularly when we look at Jesus – God’s most extravagant gift to us – we respond in worship.
There is no higher calling. And what we do with our money is simply one aspect of our worship.
In a moment we are called to remember the greatest gift as we eat bread and drink wine. Let’s pray to God for a fresh revelation of the extent of his overwhelming, extravagant, loving generosity to us – and respond accordingly.