I like to think of myself as a generous person, but on certain occasions my lack of this quality is quite apparent. This unseemly feature of my character usually raises its ugly head from time to time, when someone within earshot says something I simply cannot abide. Strangely, this is most often the case when someone expresses well-meaning, but poorly reasoned, advice. If I have redeeming quality, therefore, it is that the lack of generosity is not about money, food or controlling the remote.
A friend says of me that I do not suffer fools easily. That explanation, however, strikes me as a bit biased in my favor since it implies that the person or opinion I am speaking counter to is a fool, which may be true but is not a fair assumption to use as a blanket assessment of my opposition. The folly of speaking up may rest solely on me, after all. Verbosity, sometimes with lethal consequences, has plagued me for most of my life. So I would prefer to simply state that there are times when I feel the overwhelming need to set the record straight – or to at least express a necessarily contrary opinion, foolish or otherwise.
My target this time around concerns a recent sermon I heard on the topic of generosity. Sadly, mine is a less than generous response as my accountant’s brain jerked its knee in light of what was said by a well-meaning pastor dispensing what was purported to be godly advice. From my contrarian perspective it laid the groundwork for potentially addressing the topic of generosity as it was just one segment of a sermon series. This gave the message a cliff-hanger appeal to tune in next week, but the enforced delay in waiting for the next installment of the message merely taxed my patience, a virtue of which I also expend as reluctantly as any miser caressing his fortune. Perhaps this is because patience for me is a very dish. There’s not much depth to it and any amount of taxation threatens to create an arid wasteland.
First and foremost, Jesus did not deal in fractions. A tithe was a percentage of one’s resources, usually defined as 10 percent. However, the compounding of references to tithing in the Old Testament places the cumulative impact on one’s annual income somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. Not that the amount is egregious, thereby making it as objectionable as any Congressional tax plan. It is just that with Jesus you are all in to the point that you are no longer your own person, let alone a possessor of property and resources outside the bounds of God’s sovereignty. As was said often in the sermon, “God owns everything.” We might therefore consider adding God’s name to our checking accounts, car registrations and home mortgages.
Second, there I a tendency among those conscientious souls of Christian identity to marvel that their life-long practice of tithing has miraculous resulted in their never lacking for any of life’s necessities. I do admire those who have maintained this level of fiscal discipline over the course of many years. My less than generous opinion, however, concerns the projection of miracle status to financial conservancy. This assertion may seem blasphemous. It certainly lacks a charitable perspective. My contention, though, is that those committed souls who make the choice to tithe – and especially to set aside their 10 percent as their first expenditure out of each paycheck – also make other related choices, which encourage budgeting even in an informal manner akin to flying by the seat of one’s pants. Knowing you have less to spend inspired one to make those other expenditures just as strategically significant as the choice to tithe. Hence, you are more likely to confine your spending to the remaining balance in your wallet or checkbook.
This inherent relationship between tithing and budgeting leads to my third point. The tithe was just one component of a fiscal strategy designed to create individual wealth among the people of a burgeoning nation. And there are more verses about these contingent components than there are about tithing. The rules are complex and cover animal husbandry, horticulture, slavery, debt cancellation, restrictions on labor – think a Sabbath Day’s rest and the Year of Jubilee – and much, much more. Yet it is the tithe which so often is extracted from this socio-economic structure and promoted as a stand-alone precept. “Bah! Humbug!” says my inner Scrooge.
If you want a true representation of what generosity is you will find it in the last imaginative tale Jesus shared with his most intimate followers. It is known for its portrayal of two groups of people, classified as being either sheep or goats. The sheep are rewarded for their generosity, described for them in this way: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
And when those in the sheep category asks when did they do these things for their lord and king, he answered in keeping with one of the most dramatic aspects of what it means to be a follower of Christ: I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. There is no mention of a tithe in this story. Rather it is about personal sacrifice taking form in various ways without any reference to money and percentages.
Generosity is a heart-felt condition not an accounting equation. It is not about how much but about what and for whom a gift is made. The reward for the sheep, the representation of the truly generous person, is excessive in its comparison to the transient nature of sharing one’s food, clothing, shelter and fellowship: Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. Not only is the exchange rate in this story excessive, it is eternal. What a wonderful way to consider the outcomes of one’s own generosity.