II. THE PRACTICE OF GENEROSITY
The definition of generosity is quite simple. It is giving good things to others freely and abundantly. Both parts are necessary: Generosity must be free and unforced; it also must be lavish and expansive. Even small gifts, as we learn from the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12, can be lavish!
There is a quality and a character to generosity that attracts people to it. Generous people are good to be around. Stingy people are difficult to be around. This is a reality that everyone recognizes immediately, and everyone has examples of both in their own lives. Perhaps some of us have a wonderfully generous grandmother and a cranky, miserly uncle or perhaps we have one co-worker who goes the extra mile and another who calculates grudges. The details vary, but the pattern is so familiar.
Sociologists who study generosity have identified something they call “the paradox of generosity.” It is odd but very consistent, they say, that generously giving away something you own, in fact, brings much more back to you. Generous givers end up feeling even more blessed, even more full. In brief, giving gives right back in return.1
Perhaps because generosity gives so much back in return, it is also contagious. There is momentum and energy and purpose to generosity that catches on in a community. We see this in quite a commonplace way with pledge drives on NPR radio stations across the country. A donor will give a “challenge pledge” to encourage the giving of others. Parents who model generosity to their children are seeding the next generation with the wonderful habit of generosity that will bear fruit for years to come.
In addition, generosity turns out to be remarkably gregarious. When it is present, it touches everything else around it, making new friends as it goes. Generosity is the like the warming rays of the sun. It is like tea leaves that infuse a pot of boiling water. It is like the aroma of apple pie in the oven, filling the whole house. Generosity is a sort of incubator of many virtues like kindness, gratitude, hospitality, hope, trust and compassion. All those virtues are like little chicks under the warming light of generosity.
Another quality or virtue of generosity is empathy. A generous person is an empathetic person, one who listens, notices, is curious and wide open to the realities and experiences of other people. These are qualities of evangelism as well. At its heart, evangelism is a posture of empathy and openness that flows from Christian conviction. A congregation that is committed to evangelism is also a congregation that learns from and listens to their neighbors, wherever their neighbors are located all around the world.
Generosity is often assumed to be connected primarily to money. It is surely the case that money is a prime indicator of our deepest values. Jesus himself pointed that out when he warned against the dangers of obsessive accumulation of money. He said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). So, yes, generosity is about money. But it is also about time and energy and talent and relationships and commitments. A generous heart extends itself for the sake of others in a wide spectrum of actions and attitudes.
Because God is the giver of every good and perfect gift, all human generosity and all the virtues that trail in its wake are ultimately a gift from God. This is a foundational theological claim — that all good things come from God’s generosity. This is hard to remember sometimes. After all, God typically works silently and behind the scenes. Rare are the occasions when God shows up, say, in a burning bush or a fiery pillar or an angelic message. God usually works patiently with people like us. When beautiful and moving displays of human generosity grab our attention, we can forget that this is a gift of God flowing from God’s own generous heart of love.
1. This is the thesis of Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson in their book, The Paradox of Generosity; Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
III. SCRIPTURAL REFERENCE
Biblical Calls and Cases of Generosity
The Bible is filled with stories of both tightfisted and magnanimous givers. An example of the first is the couple Ananias and Sapphira, whose story is told in Acts 5, who thought they could bluff their way into the Christian community in Jerusalem. An unlikely example of generosity is Joseph, the quiet husband of Mary who spoke no recorded words at all in the Bible and who plays a shadowy supporting role in the life of Jesus. But he displayed deep generosity in his decision to go against prevailing cultural norms and not reject Mary in her pregnancy, as Matthew 1:19 recounts. This was a startlingly generous act of courage and conviction.
The story of a young boy who gave the contents of his brown bag lunch to Jesus is another story of generosity in the Bible in Matthew 14. This story demonstrates how generosity is often linked with hope and expectation. This boy had no idea what Jesus would do with his lunch, but something in him must have risen up in wild hope and anticipation. A small gift of bread and fish produced an enormous gift to many thousands of people with baskets left over. When generous people give, they do not grasp and control. Rather, they hope, standing on tiptoe to see what just might happen.
The whole arc of Jesus’ life is a continuous display of generosity. He interacted with outsiders, women, children, disreputable tax collectors, Roman military officers, people with serious diseases, people with disabilities and other marginalized people. Generously accepting them, including them, listening to their stories, teaching them and healing them, the way Jesus moved through the world is an extended example of generosity.
The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 is often presented as a story of forgiveness and acceptance — and surely it is. But perhaps there is a deeper quality in the father that made acceptance and forgiveness possible. Maybe that deeper quality is generosity. It was a generous heart that gave this father the capacity to extend forgiveness for his younger son’s rebellion and acceptance of his older son’s resentments. This is an important insight into how healthy communities tick. Generous communities, including congregations, have the cushion and the capacity to forgive, to accept, to heal and to move forward.
The Paradox of Generosity — Contemporary Examples
Generosity comes in all shapes and sizes. We note with gratitude the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which pours enormous amounts of money into promoting education and combating global diseases. Generosity is also displayed in the story of Sylvia Bloom, a legal secretary in New York City who worked for 67 years at the same law firm, saving consistently and quietly her whole life. After her death in 2018, her will stipulated a gift of $8 million to assist educationally disadvantaged students. Her friends and former colleagues were astounded. No one knew such a gift was possible from a seemingly ordinary person.
The same sort of consistent generosity is also displayed, often quietly, in people of modest means who faithfully tithe to their church and charitable organizations.
But generosity need not be measured only in money. An example of generosity of spirit is seen in the life and death of a college president, Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail. At the age of 71, at a time of life when many people retire and relax, he stepped into the role of president of a struggling historically Black college, Saint Augustine’s University, in North Carolina in the summer of 2020. St. Augustine’s had an important mission to empower and launch their graduates into their professional lives. But budgets were tight, student numbers were declining and COVID-19 was on the loose. Dr. McPhail wanted to give back and serve this struggling school. He told his wife, “This is a place where I can make a difference.” Dr. McPhail took every pandemic precaution, but he contracted the disease. Just a few days later, and only in his third month of service to the college, he died of COVID-19. His story then started to emerge — a kind leader with a generous and expansive vision, a persistent encourager of student success, a Black leader who was determined to empower many other Black young leaders. His decision to take up such a difficult job in such a difficult time is evidence of his generosity. It is a particularly timely story in this extended chapter of pandemic that has gripped so many people, families and communities.
V. HABITS FOR GENEROSITY
Regular giving — of money, time, energies, self — is the most important habit to grow and develop generosity. A full-grown mature generosity is not episodic or reactive; it is deeply rooted in a person or community. It is baked-in and thoroughly integrated. But this kind of mature generosity takes discipline and practice. Malcolm Gladwell once famously said that mastering a skill takes 10,000 hours of practice. Mastering generosity is a lifelong goal, but it can be practiced in regular and disciplined giving.
Another habit of generosity is communal action. Generosity is not a solo enterprise; it is practiced and perfected with others. Congregations are often the communities that practice generosity together. A congregation in Los Angeles practices that in a particularly vivid way. Back in the 1980s, First United Methodist Church in downtown Los Angeles sold their historic building and began meeting in a fellowship hall in a nearby senior living community. Proceeds from the sale of the church supported the needs of affordable housing in the neighborhood and college scholarships for first-generation Hispanic students. Then, the church decided to show up more visibly. Aided by a mild climate year-round, the congregation now worships in a large tent that is set up on the parking lot next to the church building. The parking lot is the last property they own. The congregation’s pastor, the Rev. Mandy Sloan McDow, says, “The church has a history of welcoming minorities, immigrants and refugees and of doing subversive social justice actions because they believed it was right. …This is not a church that has to be urged to do the right things.”2 The habit of generosity has taken deep root in this congregation.
Empathy and curiosity.
Generosity depends on the ability to truly see and truly hear. This requires both empathy and curiosity. Learning the experiences of others with genuine openness is another habit of generosity. Mission trips often build this habit in the life of a congregation. Mission trips sometimes, it must be admitted, fall into the trap of “poverty tourism” and patronizing cultural power. But it need not be this way. Mission trips that are framed as a time of learning, not controlling, as a time of cultural insight, not cultural dominance, can truly inform and shape the faithful habits of a congregation. Wise pastors and elders and lay leaders shape these experiences to avoid what has sometimes perpetuated patterns of control and instead nurture patterns of learning and growing and changing. In these ways, generosity germinates and flowers.
Ron Sider has worked for decades in Washington, D.C., to address issues of injustice, global hunger and poverty. He is well-known for his book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.” He has also written a book on generosity, “Just Generosity,” which makes very specific suggestions for building individual and communal generosity.3 He suggests a “Generous Christians Pledge” that includes: daily prayer for the poor; weekly volunteer time, getting to know someone in need; monthly study time to read and learn about the complicated realities of poverty nationally and globally; and a yearly retreat to deeply meditate on the question, “Is caring for the poor as important in my life as it is in the Bible?” and to re-examine giving priorities and habits.4
These are habits that can be practiced over time, alone and with others, to deepen the practices of generosity. We need to develop practices and habits because, after all, generosity is profoundly counter cultural. We live in a “cancel culture,” a “gotcha” culture of polarized opinion and debate. It seems that our leaders shout over each other instead of attending carefully to each other. It seems that our culture has prioritized dominating instead of serving, labeling instead of listening, rejecting instead of receiving. These cultural patterns are toxic weeds in our common life. We see these patterns, sadly, even in our church culture and our Christian institutions. So, building the habits of generosity is a counter cultural act and a means of witness to the kingdom of God in a world bent on violence.
2. Hillary Francis, “They sold First UMC and put up a tent in the parking lot,” Christian Century, August 8, 2018, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/inter-view/they-sold-first-umc-and-put-tent-parking-lot.
3. Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity; a New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America(Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1999).
4. Ibid. p. 221-222.
VI. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- Make an inventory of the various identities you wear each day — professional, homemaker, parent, child, church elder, retired person, spouse, volunteer and others. Do you find practicing generosity easier or harder with each identity?
- Money seems to exert an influence of solitary independence on us, even subconsciously. In what ways can you counteract this natural impulse and act out of community commitments and care for others?
- Reflect on your experiences of giving. Can you see a pattern of the “paradox of generosity” in your own life? When you give freely, do you receive even more in return?
- Can you identify someone in your life that has a generous heart? What can you learn and imitate from this person?
- The small boy in Matthew 14 had two loaves and five fish. What resources do you have? Think of a wide circle of resources such as time, skills, money, relationships and commitments.