The Grace of Giving

Rejoice with me for I have won a Premium Bond prize! I got fed up with the abysmal interest rate my bank was paying on savings.   I feel quite good about lending my savings to the government to help bail out the economy. I have already won more money than I could have earned in a year’s worth of bank interest. Rest assured, the prize won’t change my lifestyle but I feel more generous. How much did I win? all five thousand pennies… (or £50).

The currency changes everything doesn’t it? Which currency are you using to evaluate worth? An earthly or heavenly currency?

This week we mark the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday focuses our thoughts on our eternal perspective, on our mortality, and the importance of repentance and prayer. The 40-day period of Lent represents Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, when he fasted and where Satan tempted him. Lent reminds us to set aside a time to fast and reflect on the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Ash Wednesday, and the symbol of placing ash on our forehead is a solemn reminder of our need to be recociled with God which the Lord Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection at Easter. 

In our gospel reading from Matthew 6, Jesus touches on three aspects of our relationship with God – giving, praying and fasting. Notice how Jesus introduces these three spiritual disciplines. “So when you give…” (6:2), “And when you pray…” (6:5), “When you fast…” (6:16). All three are assumed. They are not optional.

Today I want to dwell on the first. Why does Jesus begin with giving and not praying? I suggest it is because in a most profound way, our attitude to money and our possessions shapes not only our legacy but indeed, our destiny. Let us discover how Jesus answers five simple questions – the when, what, where, how & why of giving.

1. When? Giving is Assumed

Notice Jesus does not say “If you give…” but “when you give…” (Matthew 6:2). If you are a follower of Jesus, he assumes that you will give back financially. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, 

“On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper” (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).  We are to give regularly and in proportion to our ability. Furthermore, we should give to the Lord of our first fruits not our left overs. It is a sign that we trust him and want to thank him for all he has provided. Have you ever got home late and found your dinner, cooked but cold in the fridge? That’s what our giving appears to God when we are not thoughtful or intentional but only give out of guilt or reluctance. That is like a frozen offering instead of a fragrant offering. That is the ‘when’. Giving is assumed.

2. What? Giving Generously

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others…” (Matthew 6:1)

In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to tithe 10% of their income to the Temple. Giving was a sign that they were in a right relationship with God. It demonstrated thankfulness for all the Lord had provided. In the New Testament the Lord does not lay down any set figure. We live by grace. We are not under the law any more. Nevertheless, many Christians follow the 10:10:80 principle – giving 10%, saving 10%, and living on the 80%. Looking back over 45 years of full-time ministry, I can testify that God has always provided for my needs, just as he promises.  Paul in his second letter to the Church in Corinth gives us a number of principles to follow based on the example of the Christians in Macedonia. 

“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8)

Generously – “whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”
Intentionally – “what you have decided in your heart to give”`
Voluntarily – “not reluctantly or under compulsion”

Prayerfully reflect on where God comes in your giving, your budgeting and spending. Giving is assumed. Giving should be generous.

3. Where? Giving Where Needed

“So when you give to the needy…” (Matthew 6:2)

While we will rightly prioritize the place where we are spiritually nurtured – our church family, there is much teaching in the Bible on the importance of compassion for the poor on the basis of need, not their ethnicity or worthiness.  

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

The word Jesus uses for ‘giving’ describes an act of mercy. God is a merciful God, ‘kind to the ungrateful and the selfish’ (Luke 6:35), we must therefore be kind and merciful too. Giving is assumed. Giving should be generous.Giving prioritises the needy.

4. How? Giving in Secret

“ do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (6:3-4). This is a proverbial expression for doing something spontaneously, with no special effort or show.  

Some question whether this contradicts what Jesus said earlier where He had specifically commanded, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

The difference between these verses has to do with purpose and motivation. The discrepancy is only imaginary.   In the first passage Jesus is dealing with cowardice, whereas in the second Jesus is dealing with hypocrisy.  

A. B. Bruce gives this helpful explanation: “We are to show when tempted to hide and hide when tempted to show.”  Jesus says, ‘beware‘ meaning pay attention to me, be on guard about what I say.  

The expression ‘to be noticed” is related to the word ‘theatre’.  In other words, Jesus is warning about showing off.  As you know water is scarce in the Middle East, and a water carrier is a welcome sight even today.  

In those days, when someone wanted to perform a charitable act and bring blessing to his family he would find a water carrier with a good voice and instruct him to give the thirsty a drink without charge. So the water carrier would go into the market place and cry out “O thirsty ones.. come to drink the offering”  The giver would stand beside him saying “bless me who gave you this drink.”  Today people do it in more subtle ways, like publishing a list of benefactors to some good cause, or putting little plaques on donated furniture to remind people of their generosity. 

The most satisfying giving, and the giving that God blesses, is done and then forgotten. It is done out of love in response to a need and when the need is met, the giver, does not seek recognition.  The principle is this: if we remember, God will forget; but if we forget, God will remember. Giving should be our natural response, done as simply, directly, and as discreetly as possible.  The when, the what, where, how & finally,

5. Why? Giving will be rewarded

“and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:4)

Running right through the Bible is this principle – giving from the heart is an investment, an investment with God and we can never outgive God.  Jesus promises a reward if our motive is pure.  What kind of reward? John Stott says, 

“It is probably the only reward which genuine love wants when making a gift to the needy, namely to see the need relieved. When through his gifts the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick healed, the oppressed freed and the lost saved, the love which prompted the gift is satisfied. Such love, brings with it its own secret joys, and desires no other reward.” 

In his book, The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis writes, 

“Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it.’

Jesus makes a similar promise in Luke 6:38. 

“Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return” (Luke 6:38). 

Jesus is describing the reward of being entrusted with more as we prove faithful with what he has already given us.  Worldly reward promises the chance to retire early and put our feet up. That’s like using an earthly currency. The Bible invites us to value everything with an eternal heavenly currency. Ironically, the reward God gives is often of more work to do. To those who are faithful with mundane things such as money, the Lord will entrust responsibilities of far greater value (Luke 16).  The ultimate reward however is knowing that we have pleased our Lord. 

We have asked five simple questions – The when, what, where, how & why of giving. As we observed at the beginning, giving is one of the three spiritual disciplines Jesus instructs us about in Matthew 6. Giving, prayer and fasting. All three are intended to be done in secret. That is because ultimately, they are intended to deepen our relationship with the Lord. They are between us and the Lord, so no one else knows whether we are practising them – which is as it should be. God knows and that is all that matters.

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus reminds us we have a choice.  

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matthew 6:24)

This is because ultimately the choice is between God and money, between the Creator himself and any object of his creation. We cannot serve both.

When I was a teenager, one summer, I had two part-time jobs on the go at the same time. I worked in a fish and chip shop at night, and a garage as a petrol pump attendant during the day. Neither boss knew of the existence of the other. It worked out just fine. Until that is, the August Bank Holiday Monday. Both employers assumed I would work all day and neither was happy to learn I was working for someone else. I had to choose.

It may be possible to work for two employers, but no servant can work for two masters. For single ownership and full devotion are expected.  When the choice is seen for what it really is – a choice between Creator and creature, between worship and idolatry – between the intrinsic worth of knowing the Living God, and the intrinsic worthlessness of being known for our love of money, it seems inconceivable that anybody could make the wrong choice. Yet many sadly do.  

As Bob Dylan put it in his song – “You’re going to have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you are going to have to serve somebody.” And you know what? We already are. Which is why there is no better day than Ash Wednesday to forget the past and decide whom we will serve in the future. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  

An Invitation

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“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)