Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Brief Biblical Theology of Generosity

Biblical theology is the ideas that the Bible itself contains.  In every section of the Bible, generosity is commanded, lauded and displayed.  Rare is such an ethical theme so consistently and regularly upheld.  Here is a sampling of this theme, and some of the strong affirmations:

1.       Creation—Psalm 104
Psalm 104 is a text about the creation of the world that offer different details than Genesis 1 or 2, and so belongs in the conversation with these texts.  Here, a picture is given of God creating an ordered world, in which every creature—even the sun and moon—are given what they need, food, water and shelter.  Human rule is seen as working to sustain this order of providing and preserving creation.  The wicked at the end of the psalm are those who deny this order, who hoard and keep for themselves resources which were meant to keep all of creation running.  In Psalm 104’s ideal creation, every creature is a part of the natural order of sustenance and amble resources.

2.       Patriarchs—Genesis 18-19
Abraham is seen as the ideal man of faith, who obtains wealth because of his trust in the One God, the Most High, the Creator.  But this wealth is also tested.  In Genesis 18, Abraham sees three men (secretly messengers from Yahweh), strangers, passing by in the middle of the desert.  Abraham insists on giving them “a little bread and water”, which becomes a feast of mutton and loaves.  This hospitality is seen as Abraham’s regular generosity for strangers.
Sodom, on the other hand, abuses strangers, harming both the immigrant and the one who offers the stranger hospitality.  Sodom is therefore destroyed for their abuse.

3.       Law—Deuteronomy 15
The law had in place a regular system of forgiving debts, which included restoring land back to the original family to whom it was given.  A warning is given with this to be generous to the poor, even if the time of forgiveness was nigh.  Generosity is tied to economic prosperity for the whole nation, because if they are generous then “there will be no poor among you.”  Generosity is always an option, and always a character trait that one should practice, for “the poor will never cease in the land.”  Or is this the Mosaic recognition that the people of Israel will not heed the law, and so economic disparity will exist as long as people withhold help from their neighbors?

4.       History—I Samuel 25
Nabal (“fool”, possibly a name given the man in later retellings) is a wealthy man having an annual sheering feast with his men.  David, an innocent homeless man with his men make a polite request to take part of the feast, as he has been protecting Nabal’s livestock.  Nabal refuses, choosing to insult David instead.  David wants to take vengeance on Nabal, killing him and his men, but Nabal’s wife, Abigail, offers gifts and generous words to David, causing him to repent from his anger.  The next day, Nabal dies of a heart attack.  Refusing charity is seen as foolish and resulting in death.

5.       Prophets—Isaiah 58
The later Isaiah is speaking to a nation recently re-settled into the land.  They wonder whether they should continue their practice of fasting each Friday, to request Yahweh deliverance from their oppressors, and restoration.  Yahweh replies that their fasting is pointless as long as they continue to oppress the poor by not being generous to them.  Once they have granted justice and peace to the poor, then God will give their fasting and prayers due consideration.

6.       Wisdom—Proverbs 28:8, 27
Proverbs has a theme about poverty and giving to the poor running throughout its pages.  We can see one theme in these two verses.  The act of charging interest on debts is a way of gouging the poor, and those who use this practice of oppressing the poor, as well as any other oppressive practices, will be judged by God to be unworthy of their wealth.  Those who will be blessed by God are those who regularly generous to those who are in need, and they will receive the wealth of the oppressor.

7.       Wisdom—Job 31
Job, like Abraham, is seen by many as a righteous wealthy man.  But what makes him righteous?  His actions of treating his servants well, and especially his generosity to the needy.  He adopted orphans and would never have a meal without sharing that meal with the poor.  His great wealth was matched by his great generosity.

8.       Jesus—Luke 12
In a lecture that is collected from various places in Q and Luke’s own source, Jesus warns his disciples against  a variety of greeds.  He gives a parable warning that preparing for one’s retirement without equal generosity to the poor, can lead to a premature judgment by God.  Wealth is not the answer to one’s problems, but God himself. The normative disciple is to surrender his possessions to the poor, in order to obtain God’s storehouse of wealth instead.  And the disciple is to be generous, not worrying about where one’s basic needs would be met, for God would supply the disciple with all he needs, even as He provides for all creation.

9.       Jesus—Luke 16
Jesus gives two parables (from Luke’s special source), speaking of the relationship of the wealthy to the poor.  In the second parable, the rich man ignores Lazarus, the poor beggar outside the wealthy estate.  The wealthy man is punished because he did not share his comfort with Lazarus who was suffering horribly.  Rather, Jesus says that wealthy people should be like the unjust steward, who sees the poor and suffering as those who will obtain God’s favor, and so should make friends with them by freely surrendering their wealth, which is not theirs to begin with, but God’s.

10.   Acts—Acts 4:33-37
The natural response to Jesus’ teachings about economics, is for many of the wealthy in the early church to surrender their wealth to be redistributed among the poor of their church.  This is the cause of God’s great blessing on the church.

11.   Paul—Galatians 2:7-10
Although Paul did not support the law being given to the Gentiles to follow, he did agree with James that one law should be commanded of all disciples, Jew or Gentile, which was generosity to the poor.

12.   James 5:1-6
The wealthy among the congregation is seen as worthy of God’s judgment because instead of sharing their ample resources, they were hoarding them, not practicing “true religion” or obeying “the royal commandment” to love their neighbor as themselves.

13.   John—I john 3:17; 4:20
The elder encourages the church to give to the poor.  If we have the ability to be generous, but do not, then we do not display the kind of love God had for us, and so we do not have God’s love or grace.  God’s grace is on display in those who meet the needs of those around them.

Throughout the Bible, the choice is clear.  If we have some wealth, money, land, estate, connections, food, livestock or other resources, then it is natural and loving to give to those in greater need than we.  If we do not do this, we are outside the system of God’s grace, mercy and generosity and we will not be partakers of God’s grace, but rather the focus of His judgment.  Even as those who do not forgive will not be forgiven, those who are not generous to the poor will not receive the generosity of God.