The enduring roots of extravagant generosity

September 20th, 2021
Available from Cokesbury

Scripture is replete with examples and teachings that focus on possessions, wealth, giving, gifts, generosity, offerings, charity, sacrifice, and sharing with those in need. Giving is central to Jewish and Christian practice because people perceive God as extravagantly generous, the giver of every good gift, the source of life and love. People give because they serve a giving God.

In the Old Testament, numerous passages underscore the significance of tithing (giving a tenth) and of first fruits (offering the first and best of the harvest, livestock, and income to the purposes of God). In Genesis 14:20, Abram gave a tenth of everything to God, and throughout Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the practice of tithing and first fruits is evident. The book of Exodus says, “Collect gift offerings for the LORD from all of you. Whoever freely wants to give should bring the LORD’s gift offerings” (Exodus 35:5). Offering money and other possessions to God results from generosity of heart rather than from mere duty and obligation.

In Proverbs, people are reminded to “Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the first of all your crops” (Proverbs 3:9). How people use their material resources either honors or dishonors their relationship to God. Generosity aligns one’s life with God’s purposes. The prophet Malachi calls upon people to rely genuinely upon God by offering the tithe, implying that when people test God’s faithfulness, they find God’s presence and promises trustworthy (Malachi 3:8-10). The voices of the prophets ring the warning that people cannot expect material sacrifices alone to please God but that God’s reign requires justice, righteousness, and faithfulness (Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:8).

Jesus’s teachings abound with tales of rich and poor, generous and shrewd, givers and takers, charitable and selfish, faithful and fearful. He commends the poor widow putting her two coins in the treasury; giving out of her poverty, she “has given everything she had to live on” (Luke 21:4). The story upsets expectations by pointing to proportion rather than amount as the measure of extravagance.

In the story of the farmer who built bigger barns, placing his trust too much in earthly possessions, Jesus asks the spiritually probing question, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” He warns, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions” (Luke 12:15). Acquisitiveness does not foster life rich in God.

And Jesus recounts the parable of the three servants entrusted with varying talents to illustrate God’s desire for the faithful to use what has been given to them responsibly and productively. The steward who fearfully hoards and buries his talent for safe-keeping is rebuked (Matthew 25:14-30). How people use what they have matters to God.

Jesus chastises the scribes and Pharisees for hypocrisy because they tithed while neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness. People of God are to practice justice and compassion without neglecting the tithe (Matthew 23:23). The tithe does not meet in full measure what the gift and demand of God’s grace requires of Jesus’s followers.

Jesus’s unexpected love for Zacchaeus so radically changes the tax collector that he gives his wealth to the poor and to those whom he has wronged. Giving serves justice and is a fruit of Christ’s transforming grace (Luke 19:1-10).

Even the story of the good Samaritan highlights extraordinary generosity. The Samaritan not only binds up the wounds of the stranger left to die in the road, but he takes the stranger to an inn, pays for the stranger’s care with his own money, and commits himself to provide for the longterm well-being of the stranger by telling the innkeeper, “when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs” (Luke 10:35). The Samaritan’s generosity, like Christ’s compassion, knows no bounds.

Beyond all the teachings, parables, and stories, the followers of Jesus see in the gracious and costly gift of his sacrifice and death the ultimate self-revelation of God. The most memorized verse of the New Testament expresses the infinite nature of God’s gracious love revealed in the gift we have received in Christ. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

In the early church, the followers of Jesus “would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them” (Acts 2:45). Generosity was a mark of the Spirit’s power to change lives and practices. Paul describes generosity as one of the fruits of the spirit, alongside “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). He describes how “We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us,” including “the one giving should do it with no strings attached” (Romans 12:6, 8). All Christians practice generosity while some are particularly gifted by the Spirit to give in extraordinary measures. Paul commends the generosity of communities of faith, especially those who remain surprisingly extravagant in their giving during difficult travails. Writing of the churches of Macedonia, he says “While they were being tested by many problems, their extra amount of happiness and their extreme poverty resulted in a surplus of rich generosity…They gave what they could afford and even more than they could afford, and they did it voluntarily. They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints” (2 Corinthians 8:2-4). Paul warns those with material means not to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches but rather on God, who richly provides everything. “Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19).

In every Scripture above—Abram with his tithe, the widow giving all she had, Zacchaeus in his transformation, the Samaritan with his compassion, the Macedonian church during its travails, and God’s self-giving in Christ’s death and resurrection—giving is always extravagant, life changing, and joyous.

John Wesley and the early Methodists practiced generosity as an indispensable aspect of discipleship, essential for the maturing of the soul and for the work of the church. Wesley taught Methodists to “gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can” (“The Use of Money,” 1744). He feared that the frugality of early Methodists would lead to levels of wealth that would distract them from their growth in faithful living. Wesley warned against earning money in destructive ways, by means that corrupted the soul or contributed to injustice. He encouraged people to live simply, without opulence, avoiding the waste of money on things unnecessary. Early Methodists were invited to practice self-control, self-restraint, and self-denial. Such practices deepened faith, avoided pride and vanity, and resulted in a greater capacity to help others. Generosity, according to Wesley, was rooted in grace, an emptying of oneself for others, an expression of love of God and neighbor.

Exceeding Expectations

The practice of generosity describes the Christian’s unselfish willingness to give in order to make a positive difference for the purposes of Christ.

Extravagant Generosity describes practices of sharing and giving that exceed all expectations and extend to unexpected measures. It describes lavish sharing, sacrifice, and giving in service to God and neighbor. Fruitful, growing congregations thrive because of the extraordinary sharing, willing sacrifice, and joyous giving of their members out of love for God and neighbor. Such churches teach and practice giving that focuses on the abundance of God’s grace and that emphasizes the Christian’s need to give rather than on the church’s need for money. In the spirit and manner of Christ, congregations that practice Extravagant Generosity explicitly talk about the place of money in the Christian’s walk of faith. They view giving as a gift from God and are driven to be generous by a high sense of mission and a keen desire to please God by making a positive difference in the world.

The notion that stewardship rightly focuses on the Christian’s need to give rather than the church’s need to receive is not simply a money-raising strategy but a spiritually powerful truth. The practice of tithing blesses and benefits the giver as much as it strengthens mission and ministry. Americans live in an extraordinarily materialist and consumerist society. We are immersed in a culture that feeds acquisitiveness, the appetite for more and bigger, and that fosters the myth that self-worth is found in material wealth and that happiness is found in possessing. Thirty-year olds feel like failures because they don’t already have the kind of house and car that their parents own, and forty-year-olds feel unsuccessful because they’re not millionaires. Millions of couples struggle under oppressive levels of debt that strain marriages, destroy happiness, and intensify conflict and anxiety. As one radio show host says, “We buy things we don’t even need with money we don’t even have to impress people we don’t even know” (The Dave Ramsey Show).

Many Americans spend more than they earn each year. The Great Recession (2007–2012) and the COVID pandemic may have slowed that trend, and other destructive financial habits, for a time. But old patterns return over time (as evident from the stock market), and lessons are forgotten. Many people sustain their outbalanced lifestyles through ever-increasing auto loans, credit card debt, and mortgages. When people with different incomes are asked, “How much more income would it take for you to be happy?” they answer in surprisingly consistent ways, saying that 20 percent more income would ease their burdens, help them buy all they needed, and bring security. People earning $10,000 think an income of $12,000 will finally bring happiness, and those earning $50,000 think that with $60,000 they can finally get on top of things, and those earning $500,000 feel that with only $100,000 more income, they will finally have it made! In other words, people who earn 20 percent less than we do think they will be happy if they can earn what we earn. So why do we feel discontent with what we have? Happiness based on possession causes people to pursue a receding goal, leaving them dissatisfied, wanting more, and never able to satiate their desires.

At root, these are spiritual problems, not merely financial planning issues. They reveal value systems that are spiritually corrosive and that lead to continuing discontent, discouragement, and unhappiness. We can never earn enough to be happy when we believe that satisfaction, selfdefinition, and meaning derive principally from possessions, and we can never trust our sense of self-worth when it rests on treasures that are material and temporal. A philosophy based principally upon materialism, acquisition, and possessions is not sufficient to live by, or to die by. At some point, followers of Jesus must decide whether they will listen to the wisdom of the world or to the wisdom of God.

Proportional giving and tithing redirect people to look at their earning, saving, and spending through God’s eyes. It reminds them that their ultimate worth is derived from the assurance that they are children of God, created by God, and infinitely loved by God. God’s eternal love revealed in Christ is the source of self-worth; true happiness and meaning are found in growing in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. Giving generously reprioritizes lives and helps people distinguish what is lasting, eternal, and of infinite value from what is temporary, illusory, and untrustworthy. The discipline of generous giving places people on the balcony, helping them look out at the consumerist society with new perspective, better able to see its traps, deceptions, and myths. The practice of generosity is a means by which God builds people up, strengthens their spirits, and equips them to serve God’s purposes.

Tithing helps the followers of Jesus understand that all things belong to God and that, during their days on earth, followers are entrusted as stewards to use all they have and all they are in ways that glorify God. What Christians earn belongs to God, and they should earn it honestly and in ways that serve purposes consistent with being followers of Christ. What Christians spend belongs to God, and they should use it wisely, not foolishly, on things that enhance life and do not diminish it. What they save belongs to God, and they should invest in ways that strengthen society. What Christians give belongs to God, and they need to give generously, extravagantly, and conscientiously in ways that help others and that strengthen the body of Christ.

One hundred fifty years ago, if your great-grandparents were active in the faith, they tithed. Why were they able to tithe 150 years ago, but we have trouble doing it today? Because they were so much wealthier than we are? The truth is precisely the opposite. We struggle with tithing because our hearts and minds are more powerfully shaped by our affluence. We find it harder to give extravagantly because our society’s values shape our perceptions more than our faith’s values do.

This article is excerpted from chapter 3 of Five Practices for Fruitful Congregations, revised and expanded by Robert Schnase.

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