19 May Giving Connects YOU to God
The Sermon on the Mount covers three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew. In the middle chapter, Matthew 6, Jesus turns his attention to three religious practices that people of many faiths have practiced for millennia: giving, praying, and fasting. According to Jesus there is a right way and a wrong way to go about these spiritual disciplines, and what differentiates the two is a question of motive.
The wrong way to practice faith is to look or sound religious for the purpose of impressing other people. That’s actually pretty obvious: when my focus is on what other people think of me, then I’m motivated by self-centered reasons rather than motivated by love of God. That’s why Jesus tells his disciples to give, pray and fast “in secret,” that is, without making a big show of it. The purpose of spiritual practices is not to call attention to ourselves, but to help us develop a deeper relationship with God. We can’t do both at the same time.
How do giving, praying and fasting help us connect more deeply to God? In order to answer that question more fully, I want to look at each practice separately. Today we’ll focus on giving; praying and fasting will be our focus over the next two weeks.
As soon as I wrote, “today we’ll focus on giving,” I think I heard groans emanating through my computer screen. One of the stock complaints about the church is something along the lines of, “they’re always after your money!” Perhaps there are churches where that is true, but my experience is actually the opposite: the church doesn’t talk about money nearly as much as Jesus did. A lot of pastors are uncomfortable talking about money, in part because parishioners often seem so touchy about the subject. Jesus was clearly comfortable marching in “where angels fear to tread.” I’m only guessing, of course, but I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t because he knew that our attitudes around money expose the real truth about the state of our hearts—and Jesus cared a lot, a lot, a lot about our hearts.
There is a fundamental truth that is the core of all that Jesus said about money: everything belongs to God and thus, everything we have is a gift from God. There are certain implications of this core truth. It means, for example, that we are stewards, not owners, of all that we possess, and that in turn means that God has a right to direct our use of God’s possessions that are currently on loan to us. It means that we are to live as caretakers of all that God has created. We are to live as joyful, thankful recipients of the extravagant generosity of God. Gratitude should be a distinguishing characteristic of all of God’s people.
All of this flies in the face of what our culture tells us, of course. We are told explicitly and implicitly that everything we have is a result of our own efforts. We are, thus, “entitled” to do with it as we please. We seem to be blind and deaf to the reality that our ability to learn and be educated, our ability to work, our birth into families and a nation that offers us opportunity, our gifts and talents—none of these things come to us as a result of our own efforts. It’s all gift, pure gift. Jesus invites us to live in grateful response to the gifts of God, and our giving is an indication of whether we really “get it” or not.
Yours for the Kingdom,