June 28, 2015

The Generous Act of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Passage: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43
Service Type:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Each year Canada’s Fraser Institute publishes a generosity index. It is a report on generosity in Canada and the United States based on the charitable giving claimed by tax filers. According to The 2014 Generosity Index the general trend in recent years is that a declining percentage of Canadian tax filers are donating to charity and they are donating less as a percentage of income. Nationwide, a lower percentage of tax filers donated to charity in Canada (22.3%) than in the United States (25.9%). Similarly, Canadians (at 0.61%) gave a lower percentage of their aggregate income to charity than did Americans (at 1.43%).

Arthur C. Brooks is an American social scientist and the President of the American Enterprise Institute. He has researched and written extensively on charitable giving in the United States. Brooks finds that religiosity is among the best predictors of charitable giving. Religious Americans are not only much more likely to give money and volunteer their time to religious and secular institutions, they are also more likely to provide aid to family members, return incorrect change, help a homeless person, and donate blood.

According to Statistics Canada, people who are more religiously active (i.e. those who attend religious meetings or services at least once a week) are more inclined to donate and, on average, they make larger donations. In 2010, 93% of them had given money to one or more charitable or non-profit organizations, and their average annual donation was $1,004. In comparison, 83% of donors who attended less often or not at all had donated, and their average annual donation was $313.

These statistics bear out something that I have long understood anecdotally; that there is a direct relationship between faith and generosity. And further, the greater part of religious people in Canada and the United States are Christians—given the religious makeup of the countries—and so we could say that it is the generosity of faithful Christians that fuels charitable giving in both countries. Here is one more note from Brooks research. Some of the survey respondents that Brooks classified as secular are indirectly affected by religion if they were raised in a religious household. Consider two secular Americans, identical in education, income, and other such measures, only one of whom was raised in a religious household. The secular citizen with a religious upbringing is nearly twice as likely to give to charity.

As I consider these findings the first thing I would want to say to the church of Jesus Christ is this: well done! Most Christians quietly go about their giving as our Lord taught us—but it never goes unnoticed by God. Now, I didn’t tell you these things so that we might be self-satisfied; rather to note what our Lord is inspiring and calling from his people as we seek to serve him. Over all of this we know to write the doxology—praise God from whom all blessings flow!

But what fuels such generosity? Deeply imbedded in the Judeo-Christian imagination is our understanding of God whose gifts are manifold and whose mercy never ends. The Hebrew people knew “that their Lord maintains the cause of the needy and executes justice for the poor.” (Psalm 140:12) If the Lord’s eye is on them the faithful Jew knew that he needed also to look to the needs of the poor. And for the Christian our imagination with respect to generosity is ignited but the love of the Saviour: as the Apostle Paul declared: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

1. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul and his missionary associates have been spear heading a fundraising campaign in the churches they planted for “the poor among the saints at Jerusalem (Romans 15:26). He makes reference to this effort in his letters; here in his second Corinthian letter he is challenging them to get the funds together; Paul’s plan was to visit Corinth on his way to Jerusalem so he writes to ask the Corinthians to get the collection they promised together so he could receive it to take with him to Jerusalem.

It is true that these churches that Paul established in the Mediterranean world were largely comprised of Gentile people. Some scholars make much of what they believe was a rift between the church at Jerusalem which was comprised of Jewish believers and these Gentile churches Paul established. And so they see Paul’s effort to raise funds for the poor of the Jerusalem church as a way of keeping peace or healing wounds.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatian church he writes about the relationship of the two branches of the church; the Jerusalem leaders had blessed Paul as messenger to the Gentiles. “They (Jerusalem church leaders) asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10) Paul as an observant Jew would be steeped in the Hebrew traditions of the care for the poor. He also knows the generous act of his Lord and Saviour. I find it hard to imagine that Paul was motivated by some desire to make himself more acceptable to the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem.

I think that there is something particularly onerous about the plight of the poor at Jerusalem. We are not told the source of this impoverishment but Paul knows the difference between having trouble making ends meet and grinding poverty. He knows from personal experience stating, “I know what it is to have little” (Philippians 4:12). In this Corinthian letter Paul commends the giving of the Macedonian churches who gave from “their extreme poverty,” wrote Paul. (2 Corinthians 8:2) Compared to the Corinthian church these Macedonian believers had little to give but gave nonetheless. I would conclude that the plight of the Jerusalem poor was something beyond the scope of limited income.

I also find it instructive that we find no description of the plight of the poor. This is not to say that the misery these people were enduring was unknown or not spoken of, but it wasn’t presented as a reason to give. Paul does not parade endless pictures of the suffering as if to make people feel guilty because they are not suffering such deprivation. Paul assumes what must have been taught—it is the right thing to do to help relieve the suffering of the poor. It is what Jesus did and for which he died—it is right that we follow his lead.

2. As I read the Apostle’s appeal to these Corinthians there is a message about giving that I think we can distill from the particulars of this collection Paul spearheads. Whenever the topic of giving comes up in the scriptures or is a topic for preaching people listening sometimes brace themselves. The guards around the wallet are called to stand for duty. If we announced with big sign on the front of the church that this week’s sermon was on the “glory of giving,” I don’t think people are steaming in early to get a seat. We need to surprise people after they get here. Truth be told I brace myself when the topic is giving. I am very leery of people who somehow know best what I ought to do with my money.

So, as I listen to what Paul has to say I, like these Corinthian believers, need some convincing. I have already alluded to something that is assumed or goes without saying. The care of the poor was the right thing to do. But there is something more here. It is the acknowledgement that there is a financial component to this work. Economy is part of God’s economy. It is right that we worship and gather together to support the announcement of the good news of Jesus—by which we are brought to faith and sustained in it. There is a financial component to what we do. We need to talk about finances. Ok Paul, I am ok with you talking about money.

In encouraging these Corinthians to be generous in giving Paul holds up the giving of the churches of Macedonia. (2 Corinthians 8:1-2) Compared to the people of Corinth these Macedonian believers lived in impoverished conditions. There is something inspiring about the giving of others that encourages us to give. I read recently about the churches in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram who have a beautiful phrase to express the way they give to God—“Buhfai Than.” In means “one handful of rice at a time.” Here's how it works: Families in the church set aside a portion of rice at every meal for God. When they collect enough rice, they donate it to their local church. The church turns around and sells the rice to generate income.

In 1914 they used the sale of rice to raise $1.50 (in U.S. money). But lately these Christians have been collecting $1.5 million as they support … the church's outreach for the kingdom.  The video below tells the story.


It is an amazing story of giving and the growth of the church. The impact of this simple act has been profound among these Christians so much so that the Mizo people have a saying, “As long as we have something to eat every day, we have something to give to God.”

Alright Paul. I am encouraged by the generosity of others to give. I also can see that while my gift might seem small all our gifts added together multiply and become more than I can imagine. On the other hand, if all those other people are giving then my gift won’t be missed.

Paul then appeals to these Corinthians and their sense of wanting to be the best Christian they could be. “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” Now some say that Paul was using flattery here as if appealing to some sense of wanting to feel good about themselves. Again, knowing what Paul says elsewhere I can’t see that he is using flattery. Paul is genuine is commenting on their passion for excellence in all matters. But like many things, our strength can be our undoing. Their passion for excellence had led to a spirit of one-upmanship issuing in community divisions. Here Paul is directing their passion for a worthy purpose. It is good to excel in giving.

Alright Paul, I can see that to excel in my Christian life that giving will be a blessing. Still I find that my desire to excel will only take me so far. At this year’s Whitchurch-Stouffville Prayer Breakfast I heard Olympian and Pan Am Medalist Sarah Chaudhrey speak. She is a rower and was part of Canada’s Olympic team that came fourth at the 2008 games. She talked of the disappointment; disappoint in not winning Olympic medal; disappointment of training for the 2012 games but not making the team. She reflected she found that God loved her just as much and had something for her to do even though her story wasn’t about achieving a gold medal. So Paul, not everyone can excel in everything.

You see I can fend off Paul’s invitation to give and be generous if he stopped there. I am happy for others to give and I am not feeling the need to excel in everything. If only he stopped there. But he didn’t. “I do not say this as a command,” Paul continued, “but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Now Paul has got me. It would be better to say—my Saviour has me. He is the one who calls this from me and I can see it in what he has done for me.

There is a word play that the English translation misses in this text. When Paul speaks of Jesus “generous act” he uses the Greek word we translate as grace. Underserved favour. Paul uses another form of this word when he calls the Corinthians to excel in this “generous undertaking”. Literally to excel in grace. It was also a form of this word Paul used in speaking of the giving of the Macedonian churches as “having overflowed in a wealth of generosity.”

When I think of my Lord setting aside the glory of heaven to take on my humanity; when I reflect at the foot of the cross that he willingly poured himself out there without remained for my sake; when I think of the One who knew no sin yet became sin for me; when I think of “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ” I am simply overwhelmed. Such generosity makes whatever amount I am trying to hold on too in my wallet seem small and small minded.

4. Friends generosity is an act of love from a free and willing heart. It can never be compelled—as our Lord’s generosity towards us shows. I hear many appeals to give that seem to have little regard for the financial obligations of the rest of life. Paul is careful—“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you.” Our Lord knows we have all these obligations and we wonder in giving will I have enough left to meet obligations. It is not a simple question to answer.

I have known believers who strike out on a ministry with no income trusting the Lord to supply—and their needs are met. I know of others who have been blindsided by a life event and gifts of money arriving from anonymous donors at strategic moments. I know many who through prudent care and work have been financially blessed and give out of such blessing. Our Lord gifts various people for various things and times. Generosity in not in the amount but in relationship to what we have.

Here is what helps me to try to be generous. I know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul said elsewhere, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:32) My experience in life is he does give. When I consider what God has given us as a people in Canada I know he gives. This does not mean I shouldn’t think about will I have enough, but I am liberated by his overflowing care to be generous in the knowledge he has my future in his hands.

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.