Thursday, June 29, 2017

How Much Is Enough? (III)

Continuing our reflections on “greed” and “the greedy person” in Ephesians 5:1-6:

Now I come to treacherous waters for it is one thing to focus on one’s own desire for more, more, and more; and it is another to address individuals through preaching, teaching, or writing – for we can all hide among the crowd; but it is quite another to say, “Not only am I guilty, not only may you the individual be guilty, but unequivocally we are collectively guilty as a group, as a body, as a church.” Yet again I am convicted.

In wrestling with my own buy-in to the cultural ethos of more, then more, then just a little bit (or a lot) more, I must ask, “What about my brother in need?” I must ask, “What about the church? How should we the church be living?” This is where the professing church that professes to view the Bible as God’s Word tends to take out its razor blade and excise Scriptures, this is where we pull down the blackout shades so as not to allow the light of the Gospel to shine into our hearts – let us sleep through the day.

In 2 Corinthians Chapters 8 and 9 Paul writes about the church of Jesus Christ caring for its own. The saints in Judea are suffering material hardship, they need money – m-o-n-e-y; they don’t need used clothes, they don’t need canned goods, they don’t need Bibles or tracts – they need m-o-n-e-y. Furthermore, they need (from the Corinthian point-of-view) our money. Paul begins Chapter 8 with:

 “Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God.”

This passage flies in the face of the idea that we need just a little bit more before we can take care of others. The Christians in Macedonia were not only experiencing persecution, they were experiencing poverty, deep poverty – and yet they were joyful and they were wealthy in liberality. They wanted to give, they begged to give – they wanted to join in the koinonia (participation) of supporting the saints who needed help.

I have read studies that indicate that the poorest populations in the United States give a greater percentage of their income than those segments of the population who are better off; people in the poorest states often give a greater percentage of their income that people in the wealthiest states. I still recall, as a young man living with mostly economically poor folks in New York City, their incredible generosity toward one another and toward missions. Since then I have often witnessed generosity among those who have had less than the rest of us.

The Macedonians were poor and yet not poor; they were poor and were striving to make others rich. They were not saying, “Once we take care of these financial needs we’ll focus on others. Once we satisfy our wants and desires we’ll start giving to others. Once we get just a little bit more we’ll help out.” They gave themselves to the Lord and then to the people of God – one giving goes with the other – we cannot belong to Christ and not belong to the people of Christ, we cannot give ourselves to Christ and fail to give ourselves to others.

While it is unusual for Christians to tithe, and while it can be unusual for churches to tithe to others, tithing (when it does occur) can also lead to the attitude among individuals and congregations that tithing is a safe harbor – let’s give 10% and spend the rest on ourselves and get more, and more, and then just a little bit more. This is not giving ourselves first to God and then to the people of God, this is not the attitude of the heart that begs Paul to be able to give to others.

In verse 9 Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” I don’t pretend to know what this should look like in individual lives, but I do know that unless there is a tension in our lives (at least most of our lives, for I have met people who model this) that this passage probably means nothing, that we likely relegate it to the flannel-graph theology of, “Oh isn’t that noble of Jesus to do that.”

Jesus lived a life of giving – are we living lives of giving?

The American Dream has taught me that I deserve to consume, to have the best, to enjoy the good life; for my conscience’s sake perhaps I will give to this or that charity or cause or mission; perhaps I will even go on short-term mission trips. But the question isn’t whether I go on short-terms trips to help others – the real question is whether my life is a mission trip, whether I am on mission every breath of every day. We often treat helping someone across the street as a short-term mission, or giving a hungry person food as a short-term mission – when we treat these things as exceptions to our lives we convict ourselves, the exceptions should be when we don’t give, when we don’t live for others.

The American norm is greed. On the Day when we stand before Christ, pointing to the Declaration of Independence and “the pursuit of happiness” is not going to absolve us of our quest for more, then more, then just a little bit more. Neither the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution is the standard of the citizen of Heaven, it is the Christ of the Word and the Word of Christ.

Am I living a life of giving? Am I living a life of mission to others? Am I living for God and others?

Matthew 25:31 – 46; 2 Corinthians 5:10.

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