Notes on stewardship in four sections:
2. How much to give?
3. The problem with money.
4. Treasure on earth ($$money$$) vs. treasure in heaven (people)
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (from Acts 4:32ff)
Notice the connection among these phenomena. The members of the congregation, animated by love and by the Holy Spirit, are motivated to act with radical generosity toward one another. This is highly conspicuous and attracts attention by the people around: What could produce such love and generosity?
As a result, the testimony of the apostles has “great power.” They are highly credible when they preach about the Resurrection, because their audience is aware that something divine has transformed their community and their way of life.
So a virtuous circle results: The real material needs of the community are met through generous giving. These actions demonstrate the power and the goodness of the gospel. And so on.
Generosity of Christians toward the poor and suffering continued to be a powerful witness during the early years of the church. Beginning in AD 250, a horrible plague devastated the Roman Empire. Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, encouraged Christians, confident in the Resurrection and promise of eternal life, not to fear the plague:
What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment! (from Treatise VII. On Mortality)
Confident in eternal life, the Christians of Carthage were willing to care for the sick and dying, even at the cost of their own lives, while others fled the city and died in despair.
In 362 AD, the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate, frustrated by the appeal of Christianity among the people, complained to a pagan priest that the generosity of Christians was winning them converts among the people:
Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase “atheism” [i.e. Christianity] I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practise them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception.
For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort, and the Hellenic villages to offer their first fruits to the gods; and accustom those who love the Hellenic religion to these good works by teaching them that this was our practice of old. (from Julian’s letter to Arsacius, High-priest of Galatia)
Why were Christians able to act with such seemingly profligate generosity? Because they knew that they had received a priceless gift through sheer grace, and could enjoy nothing more than to share that with their neighbors.
The motivation to be generous has to be much more important than the precise calculations of “how much to give.” Giving out of gratitude for God’s grace means giving enthusiastically and joyfully. If giving feels like a tedious obligation, that simply means that God’s generosity must not feel quite real (yet).
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
‘The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.’
* * *
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,
‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness endures for ever.’
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (from 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 and 9:6-15)
2 Corinthians describes the same virtuous cycle as in Acts. The congregation is overwhelmed by God’s grace, which inspires them to extraordinary acts of generosity. The evidence of this extraordinary generosity, in turn, helps make the gospel credible to observers, who are then inspired to convert and join the loving community of the church, ultimately for the sake of the glory of God.
Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. (Malachi 3:10)
The cycle is concisely stated in one verse of Malachi: Bring the full tithe >> the Lord pours down an overflowing blessing >> repeat again.
2. How much to give?
The Torah: All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. (Lev. 27:32) … Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. (Deut 14:22) … To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service that they perform, the service in the tent of meeting (Num 18:21)
The Rich Young Ruler: A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ […] When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. (from Luke 18:18,22-23)
Zacchaeus: A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich [….] Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. (from Luke 19:2, 8-9)
Why were the Israelites commanded to give 10%, while Jesus told Zacchaeus to give 50% and the rich young ruler to give 100%? Maybe because the exact number is not the point. The point is to have gratitude for God’s generosity, and eagerness to participate in working for the kingdom of God. For different people, that will mean different numbers.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:9-14)
In another parable, Jesus talks about a Pharisee, who faithfully tithed, in a bad light. Giving a good amount, in and of itself, isn’t the right answer. Rather, the key is in the attitude of the heart: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Casting oneself on God’s mercy, rather than boasting to God about how great we are.
3. The Problem With Money
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19:23-26)
Money can do so many wonderful things… So why does it cause so many problems? Because the nature of money is to blind us to our relationship to money. No matter how much or how little money we have, it’s quite natural for us to notice our neighbors who possess a little bit more than we do … or a lot more than we do. And thus, it is extremely easy for us to be self-deceived, to say: I’m not materialistic. My neighbor is materialistic!
No one could be self-deceived about whether he were committing murder or adultery. But every one of us can easily be deceived about whether we love money.
That is why Jesus’s remark about the eye and the body is sandwiched in between two discussions of money and treasure in the Sermon on the mount: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… If your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness… You cannot serve both God and wealth.
The more your heart is fixed on treasure/wealth (and this can include social capital, cultural capital, etc., as well as financial capital), the less you are able to see how much your heart is so fixed — because your eye is in darkness.
Therefore, giving is a test — it is a test of how deeply attached we are to our treasure. We can give our money to do great things, like feed the poor. But the act of praying and reflecting and planning our giving is also good for our own spirit.
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19)
It’s interesting that here in 1 Timothy, money as such is not a bad thing. And having money, being wealthy, is also not a bad thing. He doesn’t say “don’t be rich” or “rich people are bad” or “you can’t be a good Christian and be rich.” The Bible is full of rich guys (Abraham; Job) who respond well to God’s call, and remain wealthy.
Rather, the concern here is with the desires of the heart: the love of money, the eagerness to be rich, the hope in “the uncertainty of riches.” About how extremely easy it is for money, and the good things that money can buy, to win first place in the heart’s affections. That is the real problem.
Love of money is in some ways the most natural thing in the world. But it is also dangerous, and needs to be displaced. Ultimately, it needs to be displaced by a better, deeper love; not merely by moralistic scolding.
In his sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Thomas Chalmers describes how the love of money may be temporarily displaced by the love of pleasure, or the love of power; but ultimately, the human heart needs something to love above all else.
It is seldom that any of our tastes are made to disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom, that this is done through the instrumentality of reasoning. It may be done by excessive pampering – but it is almost never done by the mere force of mental determination. But what cannot be destroyed, may be dispossessed and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its, power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind.
It is thus, that the boy ceases, at length, to be the slave of his appetite, but it is because a manlier taste has now brought it into subordination – and that the youth ceases to idolize pleasure, but it is because the idol of wealth has become the stronger and gotten the ascendancy and that even the love of money ceases to have the mastery over the heart of many a thriving citizen, but it is because drawn into, the whirl of city polities, another affection has been wrought into his moral system, and he is now lorded over by the love of power.
There is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. Its desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable. Its adhesion to that on which it has fastened the preference of its regards, cannot willingly be overcome by the rending away of a simple separation. It can be done only by the application of something else, to which it may feel the adhesion of a still stronger and more powerful preference. Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart, that it must have a something to lay hold of – and which, if wrested away without the substitution of another something in its place, would leave a void and a vacancy as painful to the mind, as hunger is to the natural system. It may be dispossessed of one object, or of any, but it cannot be desolated of all.
Let there be a breathing and a sensitive heart, but without a liking and without affinity to any of the things that are around it; and, in a state of cheerless abandonment, it would be alive to nothing but the burden of its own consciousness, and feel it to be intolerable. It would make no difference to its owner, whether he dwelt in the midst of a gay and goodly world; or, placed afar beyond the outskirts of creation, he dwelt a solitary unit in dark and unpeopled nothingness. The heart must have something to cling to – and never, by its own voluntary consent, will it so denude itself of its attachments, that there shall not be one remaining object that can draw or solicit it. (Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”)
4. Treasure on Earth ($$MONEY$$) vs. Treasure in Heaven (People)
And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “YOU FOOL! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12:15-21)
This parable of Jesus’s describes a talented and successful businessman who acts prudently in managing his resources. So, why, in the parable, does God call the man a fool? Apparently because his preoccupation with material world has blinded him to the spiritual world. He chooses to store, not some or many, but all of his grain and goods. His pledge is Zero. But unfortunately, you literally can’t take it with you. As God points out in the parable, at the moment he dies, he literally can’t enjoy it any more, ever.
One approach to this problem is to give in a self-monumentalizing way: to put your name on buildings and other monuments. This defers but does not really tackle the problem. Because eventually, those buildings will crumble to dust too. Just ask the majority of the Pharaohs. Or: how many wealthy people can you name from 500 years ago? How many people will remember you in 100 years?
The way out of the problem is found in Paul’s description of Jesus in 2 Corinthians, quoted above: “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Because Jesus literally sacrificed everything for our sake — “for our sake he became poor” — we are thus wealthy, and thus we are empowered to give away the wealth of our barns and our grain and goods, generously.
And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ (Luke 16:8-13)
In another parable here, Jesus tells the story of a business manager who had been embezzling and loan-sharking; when he was about to get caught, he decided to call in each of his clients and cancel their debts to him.
Jesus isn’t really commending shady business practices as such, here. Instead, he is complimenting the wisdom, the ‘shrewdness,’ of the shady manager, who sees that ultimately people are more valuable than money. So Jesus says to his followers: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
The point is that our money will ultimately all be gone, while our relationships with other people, seen in the light of eternity, will not. In his 1942 sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis tried to describe the gravity of this:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the
light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden. (source)