Life is often intertwined with seasons of giving and receiving, invitations both in envelopes and for generous donations to various organizations or to those in need, not only at the holidays, and even more so in today's economic climate. These invitations are good and Christians should lead the way in generosity. In the words of J.I. Packer, “The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor…to enrich their fellow humans.” One of the dangers, however, in these invitations is that we limit our thinking about generosity to donations we make. When the Bible talks about generosity and giving, it’s wider and more costly than donations.
Scripture challenges us to think about generosity with our whole lives, not only four weeks in the year. Paul writes about this in Acts: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Acts 20:35
These were Paul’s parting words to the Ephesian elders in Miletus while he was en route to Jerusalem. After quoting Jesus, Paul knelt down and prayed with those gathered, and Luke writes that “there was much weeping on the part of all.” But why weeping?
When less isn't more
If we only read the words of Jesus, we could quickly develop talking points on generosity. Generosity is good. Jesus wants us to be generous. There is a greater blessing in giving. Yet, the context of Paul’s quote and the emotion it evokes should press us further. If generosity is good, Jesus wants us to live generous lives, and there is greater blessing in it than receiving, why do the Ephesian elders weep in response? Paul can’t be making a Giving Tuesday pitch. Something else is happening. Paul is quoting Jesus to summarize his work and love for the Ephesians, as well as his willingness to hurry to Jerusalem even though he knows “imprisonment and afflictions await me” (22-23). The “giving” Paul is summarizing includes suffering and sacrifice for others. It means he will never see the Ephesian elders again. Paul knows he is going to die, he tells them that he knows, and so they wept together. It is also interesting to note that we find no cross reference for these words from Jesus. These were not words spoken directly to Paul, nor do any of the Gospel writers record them. Paul is confident Jesus said it, but here again it is helpful to see this statement as a beautiful summary of the many things Jesus said and did.
After Jesus spoke his departing words to his disciples, he too knelt down and prayed. He too wept, but all alone in Gethsemane. To us a son was given. Jesus did not redeem the world through an act of generosity in the form of a donation. Jesus redeemed the world through a sacrifice. He did not give one thing. He gave himself. What would it look like if our giving was truly informed by the giving of our Lord Jesus? C.S. Lewis said, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditures on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.
If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them. Paul’s departing words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 provide a great example of generosity informed by the generosity of God.
Read it for yourself and be challenged to imagine what it really means to believe that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Paul describes his work, his service, and his worship as giving to God and others. What a beautiful gift!