I’m no stranger to background checks, although that “last 5 addresses” part stumps me. We’ve lived a lot of places! More personally, it’s hard to know someone until you know their backstory. Barnabas has come up a few times in our walk through Acts, so this week, I offer you four descriptors for Barnabas as his own man, separately from Saul/Paul. I hope you see him in a fresh light when we’re finished. Continue reading
God continues to generously pour out understanding about the essentiality of generosity, but we have to stop sometime. Perhaps this isn’t my final post on the topic, but it’s still a conclusion.
At no time of year is God’s generosity more evident than Christmas and the New Year. He gave His Son, an event we’ve commemorated for over 2000 years now, and He has just given us another year of life and blessings. It is fitting, therefore, to also consider some of God’s other generously-given gifts as we close out this year of focus on generosity. (Conclusion coming next week.)
Now we come to what may be the most difficult passage on generosity in the Bible. So difficult, in fact, that the Holy Spirit didn’t remind me of it or highlight it back in January when I took up this year-long study. I don’t think I could have handled it then. A few days ago, while reading the Sermon on the Mount, I tried to breeze through another of Jesus’ “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…” sections. But the Spirit stopped me in my tracks.
“This is about generosity!” my heart screamed.
“Oh no,” my mind replied. What do you think?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” –Matthew 5:38-41
Is there any way this passage isn’t about generosity? Because I don’t like it. My fleshly side is pushing back hard.
We call it justice, but what we really want when we’re wronged is revenge. We consider vengeance a right, along with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “Eye for an eye,” we say, thinking our biblical reference justifies our anger.
“But I tell you…” Jesus says, freezing us in our tracks. In this passage, He gives three examples of generosity toward an antagonist. An antagonist. That means our opponents, our bullies, our enemies.
Turn the Other Cheek
The image here is that kind of slap such as in the Victorian era, when a man might slap another man with his gloves. It’s talking about insults.
If someone insults you, don’t try to block him/her from doing it again. Allow a second insult without retaliation. What about a third? Or a fourth? Even though we only have two cheeks, I think Jesus would say “yes.” The insults may smart, like the gloves to the face, but they don’t cause permanent injury. We forgive.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. –Matthew 18:21-22
Can I experience repeated insult without retaliation? Can I be generous with my forgiveness and endurance? This kind of attitude demands extreme humility and equally extreme confidence in one’s identity in Christ such that I don’t have to defend myself or my honor.
Give Him the Shirt Off Your Back
Jewish law prohibited a lender from taking someone’s coat as collateral, even for a short-term loan (NIV Study Bible notes on Matthew 5:40). But they could take the shirt beneath the coat. Jesus said, instead of arguing, give the coat along with the shirt.
Jesus calls us to give
back more than is due.
The contemporary response to being sued is to counter-sue, or before you call in the lawyers, to accuse those who accuse us. Instead, Jesus calls us go beyond dropping the complaint–to give more than is demanded, to make reparations beyond equality, even to the point of personal sacrifice. He calls us to keep peace even if it brings us shame, like walking around shirtless and coatless would shame us.
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. –Romans 12:18
Can I be generous with peace-keeping? I’ll need to prioritize peace over my personal needs and even my rights.
Go the Extra Mile
Roman soldiers could force bystanders into service for short periods of time. (Think of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27:32). I don’t know how far they could legally force a person to carry their equipment, but imagine someone continuing to walk beside the soldier beyond the legal limit. Imagine the opportunities to talk about one’s faith in that second mile!
Jesus calls us beyond
equality to generosity.
Maybe your boss makes you work late. Maybe your neighbor keeps you out at the mailbox to talk about her problems for half an hour. Maybe your brother buys you a cheap Christmas gift every year. There are many situations in which Jesus pulls us down that second mile, beyond equality to generosity. In those moments, we have incredible freedom to talk about Him.
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you. –Proverbs 25:21-22
Can I be generous (with time, money, or effort) in excess? I’ll need to stop keeping score.
Jesus did it, just like Isaiah said He would.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. –Isaiah 53:7
He didn’t open his mouth. He didn’t retaliate. He didn’t accuse. He didn’t return injury for insults. He “went the extra mile” when He prayed for His executioners (Luke 23:34).
Generosity doesn’t discriminate. The bullies, the adversaries, the enemies…they all need to see Jesus in us, too. This is a high, high calling. Honestly, I’m sitting back in my chair right now trying to grasp how my life is going to change with obedience in this area.
Nobody said generosity was going to reflect equality or personal rights and privileges. Sometimes, it’s the opposite. A tough take on Jesus’ idea of generosity, because now more than ever, my #generosity is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)
What about you? Does this passage challenge your idea of generosity? What do you find difficult to swallow here? I’d appreciate your response in the comments below, and I always respond.
Hospitality, as we’ve learned this year, is an essential aspect of generosity. We looked at opening our homes and other spaces not only to our friends, but also to those who are different from us. But here’s a sad fact: We can open our homes without opening our lives. We can put on a happy face, decorate beautifully, and entertain graciously without ever letting people into our personal space. We can have inhospitable hearts.
I enjoy being in homes where they say, “Get whatever you want out of the fridge,” and they don’t bother to say, “Sorry I didn’t get the upstairs bathroom cleaned.” In such homes, I feel welcomed into their lives, into the space where they really live, not just into their square footage. And if their teenager left his clothes on the upstairs, uncleaned bathroom floor? Well, then I know we have something in common.
When we practice generosity of relationship, we break into our own personal space to offer understanding and authenticity. It’s a hospitality of the heart.
Jesus did it. He allowed us to enter His personal space and intimate relationships. Continue reading
I don’t like other people to fill my plate. They tend to give me heaping helpings of every food, then I can’t eat it all, then I feel bad for wasting food. I know they are being generous, and maybe it’s my latent control freak rearing its head…
Anyway, we have a bonus post on generosity this month. Pile heaping portions of these biblical examples onto your figurative plate and dig in! I promise I’ve kept the calories in check, but not the alliteration.
People of Judah: Heaps of Tithed Goods
Hezekiah was one of the last kings of Judah. “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done” (2 Chronicles 29:2). He repaired the temple, restored the prescribed sacrifices, re-ordained the priests, and reinstituted the Passover. (Told you there was alliteration.) He also called the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding area to support the priests and Levites with their tithes. The people responded generously. They brought a tenth of everything they owned, and it took four months—four months!—to collect it all. So much came in that they had to pile everything into heaps in and around the temple (2 Chronicles 31:6). When Hezekiah saw all those heaps, he praised God and asked the priests what was going on. Azariah replied,
Since the people began to bring their contributions to the temple of the Lord, we have had enough to eat and plenty to spare, because the Lord has blessed his people, and this great amount is left over. –2 Chronicles 31:10
Enough and plenty to spare
The Lord has blessed his people
Imagine the heaps: bread, casks of olive oil, jugs of wine, other crops such as squash and beans, plus the corrals of various animals. Imagine the priests weaving their way between the piles as they go out into the city, the cook coming out for another cask of oil. Seems funny to me.
God used the generosity of
his people to take care of
But more importantly, we see that God used the generosity of His people to take care of His ordained. Those who serve in our churches and other ministries can depend on God’s plan. Those who aren’t “on staff” can respond to the Spirit’s prompting to bless the pastors and ministers.
I wonder what my pastor would say if he found a heap of vegetables outside the church’s front door this Sunday.
Cornelius: Heaps of Unclean Animals on a Sheet
In the book of Acts, God has a pattern of connecting God-fearing non-Jews with apostles and disciples (e.g. Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8:26-40). One such man was Cornelius, a Centurion in the Italian Regiment of the Roman army—a clear-cut Gentile. He lived in Caesarea, where everyone knew he was faithful to the God of the Jews and generous with all those in need (Acts 10:2). God responded to Cornelius’ generosity by setting up a meeting between him and Peter. Remember Peter’s vision of the unclean animals on a sheet (Acts 10:9-23)? That was this situation. In the end, everyone in Cornelius’ household believed in Jesus, received the Holy Spirit, and was baptized!
God blessed Cornelius in
response to his generosity.
Cornelius wasn’t expecting anything from God. He wasn’t giving in order to get to Heaven. He just did what he knew was right. He discovered God’s heart almost by accident, unlike the Pharisees, who tried so hard and yet missed the point (see Luke 11:41).
God responded to Cornelius’ generosity and blessed him with eternal life.
Publius and the Maltese: Heaps of Hospitality
God blessed those who were
generous to His followers.
Toward the end of Acts, we find Paul on a ship headed for Rome. The ship was caught in a big storm, Paul had an I-told-you-so moment (Acts 27:21), and the ship wrecked on Malta. Not only were the people “unusually” kind (Acts 28:2), but also Publius, the chief official on Malta, showed “generous hospitality” (Acts 28:7) to Paul and the other shipwreck victims. Publius’ father was sick, so Paul prayed for him and laid hands on him. God responded by healing Publius’ father and, later, all the sick people on the island.
Publius wasn’t looking for a healing when he took Paul and the others into his home, but God responded to his generosity by using Paul to heal. God blessed those who were generous toward His followers.
Wealthy Landowner: Heaps of Indignation
Jesus famously told a story about a wealthy landowner who recruited workers throughout the day. When it came time to distribute the day’s wages, he gave the late-arrivals the same amount as those who had worked all day. The all-day workers were incensed! They grumbled and said, “These who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (Matthew 20:12).
I, in my right-wrong, merit-based, justice-driven worldview, tend to agree with those workers. The all-day workers had done more work, so they deserved more pay. Perhaps the late-arrivals were even lazy or shiftless.But they had contracted with the landowner to work all day for one denarius, and he gave them one denarius—the same money Roman soldiers made in a day (NIV Study Bible notes). As unfair as it may feel, he didn’t cheat the all-day guys.
Generosity must be based
on what is needed, not
what is deserved.
We must turn our perspective upside down to understand what’s going on here. The landowner gave the workers what they needed, not what they deserved. Those who worked for only one hour needed to feed their families just as much as those who worked all day. This landowner met the needs of his community rather than judging who deserved to be paid and who didn’t.* Maybe that’s why God gave him wealth in the first place.
“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” –Matthew 20:15
Here I find one of the biggest challenges to my efforts at generosity. I want to give only to those I judge deserving, those who work hard, or those I somehow deem trustworthy. In this parable, Jesus shows our generosity isn’t about what others deserve. It’s about what the other person needs, and I don’t decide what others need. I must simply respond to the Holy Spirit as He prompts me to give.
To bring it all together, when I respond with generosity as He prompts, I can trust He will bless me with what I need. Heaps of generosity lead to heaps of blessing.
Going back to our image of a heaping plate, I would love to know which point you need to “chew on” for awhile. Or maybe it’s time for the next course, if you have any room left. Can you think of another biblical example of generosity? (Not Zacchaeus—I did that one last month.) Encourage us all by responding in the comments below!
*I am indebted to Amy Jill-Levine, in Short Stories by Jesus, for opening my eyes to the landowner’s point-of-view.
I remember sitting in my tent cabin on the side of a mountain in Yosemite National Park, where I was working for the summer. I was twenty-three years old, and I had just finished college. It was the summer before I got engaged…and the summer my grandmother died. It was the summer I read Mere Christianity. I opened to the inside back cover of my journal, and I wrote, “Rules to Live By.” I already longed for wisdom, and I asked God for it daily. I had been paying attention to what happened—both to me and around me. For those couple of months, I thought back over my life. I tried to see where God was working. I thought about the spiritual relevance of everything.
People are more
important than plans.
By the end of the summer, I had three rules. The first one was this: People are more important than plans. Maybe you’re thinking, “Duh!” But to this Type A, first-born, compulsive list-maker, who would do whatever it took to tick that last task off the day’s to-do list, such a simple sentence both convicted and challenged me. In not-so-many words, God told me to prioritize the people in my life over the plans/tasks/lists/projects/obligations.
I haven’t always heeded my own rules, including this one. Continue reading