Sunday, April 19, 2015

Great Generosity

2 Corinthians 8 & 9

As Paul writes what we refer to as 2 Corinthians, many of the believers in Jerusalem were facing severe poverty. It is easy to imagine that many of them were put out of their synagogues and faced persecution for following Jesus, which would have without doubt affected their ability to earn money, but many Jews were likely poor under Roman occupation, regardless of their faith. As recorded in Romans 15, believers in Macedonia and Achaia were ready to help, and now the believers in Corinth were also ready to come to their aid. The Jews had shared Jesus with them - Gentiles - so supporting the Jewish believers materially was a matter of duty.

But as 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 show us, the Corinthians were not operating out of mere duty but out of a deep desire to support their brothers and sisters in Christ. Titus had apparently initiated this gift (v6), but they didn't require convincing; God's work in them led to their great generosity. God had given them joy in their affliction...generosity in their poverty (as of a beggar).

The average American donates 3-5% of their income to charity. The percentage is higher for those that give to religious organizations. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the percentage decreases as a person's income increases (up to about $250,000 a year). It is also interesting to note that those with the lowest incomes, below $20,000 a year, donate 4.6% to charity.

The Corinthians saw giving as a privilege and gave up to and even beyond their ability to give. We also see that they gave themselves first to the Lord, and then to the godly leadership of Paul and his co-laborers, who pointed out that this gift was voluntary but provided an opportunity for them to show their sincerity.

Paul then points to the truth of the incarnation of Christ, that Jesus left heaven and accepted the limitations of humanity so that they could gain heaven and become children of God. He became poor so that we could become rich. Christ becoming poor meant effectively giving up His omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence as He took humanity (Philippians 2:5-11). The riches He provides for us are not earthly wealth and fame (Matthew 6:19-21), but the treasures of heaven, indescribable grace, and the fruit of the Spirit.

The Corinthians had already committed themselves to giving; the time was coming to fulfill that commitment. As Coach Richt says, it was time to "finish the drill." We are great at coming up with ideas and making plans, but we often fail at the completion and execution of those plans. It is a lot easier to say you are going to give than to actually give.

It is also easy to think that since you are not 'rich' (by whatever standard you choose to use) and cannot give a large gift then your gift is not that important, but Paul says that we should give according to what we have, not by what we don't have. The goal was to bring about a level of equality among the believers, that the Corinthians' abundance would meet the needs of those in Jerusalem. Yet another example of the New Testament church being too liberal for modern conservatives while at the same time being too conservative for modern liberals, but I digress...

Paul and those with him also recognized the new for accountable in administering these funds. There is no shortage of financial scandals among churches, ministries, and other charitable organizations today, and those with the responsible of administration should take heed of Paul's example in this. He sent some of his best people to do this: Titus and likely Luke and/or Apollos.

Paul had been bragging on the Corinthians, and he was writing not to motivate them to give (they were already 'ready') but to make sure that they were ready to give. As mentioned before, a desire to do something and actually doing it are two different things.

When I worked for The Atlanta Opera, one of my jobs was to track pledges that had been made. A pledge is when a person commits to making a donation at a later date. These pledges are often in writing (to keep the accountants happy) and are often paid in installments over time. Donors may do this for a variety of reasons, but it is often done in part to receive some type of formal recognition from the organization. Whenever it is determined that a donor is not going to fulfill their pledge, the accountants have to write off the pledge as a loss, something no one wants to do.

Paul feared that this might happen with the Corinthians. Of course, his concern was less for the accountants and more to prevent the embarrassment of his ministry, the Corinthians, and ultimately God. He also warned against covetousness. It is easy to see how a person's 'readiness' could have faded. 'That was last year, God. Things have changed.'

Then we get to the verses we hear whenever a preacher is brave enough to preach about giving, about sowing and reaping and being a cheerful giver...'here it comes,' we mutter. Paul says that generosity is an evidence of grace in the life of a believer. It's not so much that you must be generosity to be a follower of Jesus, but rather that generosity is a sign that a person is following Jesus. It shows who we really are.

In Luke 16, Jesus says, "Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you?" If we are not faithful in the resources we have been entrusted with now, why do we think God will give us more to be responsible for later? Just ask the countless number of people whose lives were ruined by winning the lottery. Having 'more' usually isn't the answer. It's different in God's economy. Just look at Luke 21. The poor widow gave 'more' in her two copper coins that the rich who were giving out of their excess.

R. G. LeTourneau, a businessman whose company built the facility now known as the Georgia Baptist Conference Center, said, "The question is not how much of my money I give to God, but rather how much of God’s money I keep for myself." He lived this out in part by eventually living off of only 10% of his income, giving the rest away.

John Wesley earned the equivalent of $10 million in books sales alone but died broke having given it all away to various ministries and causes. "[When I die] if I leave behind me ten pounds...you and all mankind [may] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber."

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
-C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Paul concludes this section with an incredibly profound statement: "Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!" This gift, the grace he had just discussed that (among many other things) compels believers to give, is truly indescribable. One of the best known hymns in the world is "Amazing Grace." This hymn, even with all of the emotion that it can evoke, falls short in describing the grace that is available to us through Jesus. We don't deserve it; we can't earned. All we can do is accept it and be thankful for it.