Radical Generosity: How Christians Fail

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Lk 6:24).[1]

“Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back” (Lk 6:30). “Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mt 19:21). [2]

These are the words of Jesus in the Gospels. For me, these are difficult words to hear. I consider myself a follower of Jesus, and in the view of society, I am Christian. I attend church and believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose again. However, these words of Jesus attack me with a sense of disconnection between the life Jesus requested of his contemporary followers and my own life. I am rich and full. I do not give to everyone who begs from me. I have not sold what I possess and given it to the poor. Do I not have a treasure in heaven? Am I not a follower of Jesus?

I have a close friend who is not a Christian and who has been reading the Gospels. Of all the difficult passages, what he finds most challenging is that few people who call themselves followers of Jesus live according to these teachings. He asks, bluntly, “How can you call yourselves Christians yet have so much stuff?”

His words have stayed with me and challenged me. One Friday night this semester, at a campus fellowship meeting, the speaker spoke on generosity. He was a Harvard graduate who had been successful in finance and who discussed how he took joy in being generous with his wealth. His donations provided a large part of the funding that this fellowship needed, and without his generosity, it is unlikely that I would have ever grown in faith enough to write this post about radical generosity. I am grateful for his help. Nevertheless, because of my friend’s challenge, I felt a tension between his teaching on generosity and the radical words of Jesus.

As I considered my situation during the talk, I found it hard to understand how I was living according to Jesus’s call to radical generosity. I was sitting in a lovely building in Harvard Yard, comfortably fed by a meal eaten in an ornate dining hall, having listened to a wonderful praise band with technologically developed instruments and speakers, and awaiting a fun Friday night on campus. Certainly, I was rich and well-fed. Yet nowhere in the speaker’s message was I encouraged to question my state of comfort. The generosity the speaker talked about seemed to be of a different category. He spoke about a more practical generosity, about tithing and being wise about one’s finances. This was not Jesus’s message. It was not as radical. It was safer.

At the end of the speaker’s talk, he asked if there were any questions. My hand shot up. I asked why we were not all giving away all of our possessions— after all, Jesus seemed to command it. He responded by telling me, rightly, that this was a tough question, and then briefly remarked that the sacrifices those who follow Jesus must make for His sake are different for different people. He said that for some people, following Jesus will mean selling all possessions, but this life is not for everyone.

Many Christians use such an interpretation to understand Jesus’s call to radical generosity. They need to reevaluate their interpretation to make sure that they are not overspiritualizing his teaching. Those who claim to follow Jesus too often use such an easier-to-swallow understanding to justify what are really failures in their attempts to follow Him. James exhorted Christians to live out their faith, saying, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (Jam 2:15-16). The story of the rich young man is in the Gospel for a reason—we cannot ignore it. If Jesus says, “Sell what you possess and give to the poor,” why do Christians not do what He commands?

To live out Jesus’s teaching, Christians must apply his story to their lives. This is more complicated than isolating one verse and extrapolating from it a specific ethic about generosity. A point of comparison to the story of the rich young ruler is the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector. Upon finding salvation in Jesus, Zachhaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Lk 19:8). Zachhaeus does not give away all of his possessions, and Jesus does not request him to. However, it is clear that Zachhaeus was indeed being radically generous, and in this way, he followed Jesus.

In addition to looking at the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, Christians can look at the generosity of the early Church, as described in Acts. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold, and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to all as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35). When one couple—Ananias  and Sapphira—held back some of their own money from the Church and lied that they were joining the believers by giving everything, they fell down dead in the presence of the apostles (Acts 5:1-11). Today, like Ananias and Sapphira, many Christians are lying— not explicitly, but in their hearts—by claiming they are being generous with everything while they hold on to the possessions that are what they truly love. Among the early Christians, there was to be no love for possessions. Radical generosity was at their core.

Most fundamentally, Christians must imitate Jesus in their radical generosity. As Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to excel in generosity, he reminds them of the grace of Jesus, who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Christians must imitate Jesus, and this means following his radically generous example.

There is no literal, specific application of Jesus’s message of radical generosity to each Christian’s life. However, radical generosity is central to Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, as it is at the core of his teaching, sacrifice, and calling for his Church. Therefore, a spirit of radical generosity must permeate the Christian life.

However, this spirit does not permeate the Christian life. According to one set of statistics, Christians give at 2.5% of income per capita, less than the 3.3% of income per capita given during the Great Depression[3]. Two thirds of Christians who do not tithe, meaning giving at least 10% of their income, say they either cannot afford to tithe or have too much debt[4], yet those who do tithe are equally distributed across income levels[5]. These statistics are troubling, but they do not describe the core problem, for the problem is that Christians have placed faith in the promises of stuff, and not in the promises of Jesus.

Christians must recognize that they desire comfort, happiness, and certainty in their lives even when such pleasures come at the cost of service and generosity for others. The promises of advertisements, social media, and popular movies and television shows lure Christians to give into the temptation to love stuff. Therefore, they want to think that Jesus means as little as possible by his commands to radical generosity. If Christians hear Jesus’s words with fresh ears, and not the ears of a comfortable churchgoer, they will be challenged by the radically generous lives Jesus requests of his followers.

Christians should remember the convicting words of the wandering tramp in Charles Sheldon’s 1894 fiction book In His Steps. Upon stumbling down the center aisle during Sunday services at the largest church in town, he says this:

“I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night, ‘All for Jesus, all for Jesus, All my being’s ransomed powers, All my thoughts, and all my doings, All my days, and all my hours,’ and I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside what they meant by it. It seems to me there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. … It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations an all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin[6].

The solution to this problem is not for church authorities to command all Christians to become paupers. The solution lies at the very root of the Christian life—in faith. Christians fail in following the call to radical generosity because of a misplaced faith in the promises of stuff. Yet many amazing things can still be done through Christians if they believe in promises of Jesus.

Christians cannot give up their comforts, reject the promises of stuff, and live radically generous lives  unless they have transformed hearts, trust that Jesus is Lord, and believe that following him brings eternal life. Christians who trust in this promise can have great joy in living with a focus upon the kingdom of God. Their eyes can be fixed on the great, ultimate promise of joyful, eternal service to God in his glory, to which the promises of stuff cannot compare, and their radically generous lives will lead to radical transformation in the world around them. Jesus wanted his followers to live this way when he told them, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Mat 13:44).

I must confess that I am scared about the prospect of truly following Jesus’s teaching. Around me, giving is encouraged, but not radical giving. Harvard encourages its students to “give back,” but not to give all. It is more comfortable to “give back” and keep some for myself. Yet Jesus wants me to give all I have for His kingdom. I am scared of losing the comforts that I keep. I am scared of losing Friday night fellowship meetings, with all the pleasures Harvard and the fellowship can offer. I am scared of fundamentally refuting the promises of stuff that I entertain when I see the Christmas lights of December draped over stores and shoppers bustling with the pleasure of having received something nice and new. If I follow Jesus, I will lose this. An outright rejection of stuff is counter-cultural. It brings uncertainty. It is not safe.

Yet safety is not everything. C.S. Lewis wrote of Jesus in allegory, “ ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”7 If I trust that Jesus is King, and a King that loves me, then I can serve him with joy. If Christians let go of their trust in comfort and in stuff, and instead live with Jesus as their King, then they will begin to live the radically generous lives of the followers of Jesus. I do not know exactly what this radical generosity will look like in my life, just as I do not know what it will look like for other Christians. Therefore, I must pray, as all Christians must pray about this. Those who are not Christians, like my friend who has been reading the Gospels, will look into Jesus’s story and see there the foundation for the lives of his followers in the world, people who live with their eyes fixed beyond stuff, to the kingdom of God, with Jesus as King.

May Jesus be King over all our lives, in every way.

 

1 All Bible quotations come from the English Standard Version.

2 Jesus says this in response to the rich young man when he tells him that he wants eternal life, claims that he has kept all the commandments, and asks Jesus what he still lacks. While this teaching comes in response to a specific person and situation, it applies to the current state of un-radical generosity in the American Church. Christians in the US believe they have kept God’s commands, but they also love their possessions. They must ask if they would go and sell what they possess and give to the poor.

3 Dodd, Brian. “Generous Church: Top Ten Characteristics.” ChurchLeaders. All these statistics come from the 2013 State of the Plate report, though each statistic was accessed at a different location.

4 Kluth, Brian. “10 Million Tithers Donate More than $50 Billion”. Christianity Today.

5 Steffan, Melissa. “An Inside Look at Church Attenders Who Tithe the Most”. Christianity Today.

6 Sheldon, Charles M. In His Steps. Ulrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing, Inc, 2005. Print.

7 Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.

 

Peter Hickman ’16 is an applied math concentrator in Leverett House, a staff writer for the Ichthus, and the proud roommate of Henry Li.

 

 

 

 

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