'Justice, Mercy and Kindness - week 5: Cultivating a habit of generosity' by Owen Lynch - November 25th 2018
How can followers of Jesus learn from history about why God calls for generosity, and what happens when we practise it today?
"This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’" Zechariah 7:9-10 (NIV)
In the last four weeks Mal, Dan and Claire have led a series of talks based around these words about justice, mercy and kindness.
In our previous series, The Journey, we saw Israel settle into a promised land with wealth and comfort. But rather than maintain a good relationship with God, the Bible describes Israel's decline into split kingdoms, conquered by more powerful enemies. Many people were exiled and their Temple destroyed.
Some prophets (e.g. Isaiah) foresaw this decline, others (e.g. Daniel) spoke during the exile, and Zechariah was one who spoke as the temple was rebuilt and people returned to Jerusalem. The story of this is in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
In seventy years without the Temple, Jews had marked its destruction with fasts and holy days. When the Temple was restored, people questioned whether these observances were still necessary. Zechariah's answer looked at people's motives.
"Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: ‘Ask all the people of the land and the priests, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?" (Zechariah 7:4-6)
Zechariah's concern about people's self pity parties was similar to Isaiah's teaching about fasting and what should result from it:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard
Cultivating a habit of generosity
In Luke 16:1-9, Jesus told his disciples a story about a dishonest manager who was commended by his master for shrewdly discounting debts to gain friends.
Jesus was not telling people to be dishonest but to be shrewd about how God's Kingdom works - we are all managers of our master God's money, and Jesus encourages us to be generous with it. In this way, we can bring life to our community.
If we want to know how much God is changing our lives, our generosity level is a better indicator than how much Bible we know, because it is unhelpful to know a lot of the Bible and only do a little of it.
We expect followers of Jesus to be radically generous because everything that God has made gives - from the sun to fruit trees in season - but only humanity gets to choose giving. This is a privilege reserved for the crown of God's creation - people.
Generosity in the Bible begins with a tithe - a tenth of our time, energy and money. Ancient societies understood ten as "wholeness" (as we have ten fingers) and a tenth was a significant representation of the whole. By giving a tenth of their stuff, people said they were giving all of themselves to God. This giving was for God's landless servants the Levites and others:
"When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied." (Deuteronomy 26:12)
There were three kinds of tithe plus special gifts and freewill offerings to be given in worship and response to God's generosity:
"You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you." (Deuteronomy 12:4-7)
Does this apply to Christians?
Jesus was a Jew and thought tithing was part of relationship with God. He criticised Pharisees for legalistic giving which neglected justice, mercy and faith, but said that these more important things should be addressed along with tithing. More than half of Jesus' parables mention money, and he famously said that our hearts will be where our treasures are.
Jesus encouraged followers to give extravagantly because of God's extravagant generosity.
"The world of the generous gets larger and larger; the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller." (Proverbs 11:24, The Message)
How we are applying this
Severn Vineyard has been giving to our city since it started 9 years ago, setting aside 15% of church income to serve the vulnerable and in need. This includes food and hot drinks for the homeless, a local prison chaplaincy, redecorating for vulnerable people, a storehouse of free children's clothes and equipment, and support and friendship for refugees and asylum seekers.
Last year, a property management firm said that it had observed Severn Vineyard’s generosity for a while and offered the church some property for running community services. The City Churches Fund also encouraged the church to apply for funding to set up a CAP (Christians Against Poverty) debt management centre, and a food bank alongside other churches.
The training ground for generosity is tithing the resources God has entrusted to us.
In addition, as a response to this series of talks, we are inviting everyone to make a one off special offering to help the widow, the orphan, the foreigner and the poor. The money will be divided between charities mentioned in the series.
Details on how to give are here. Please include the reference "Special Offering 2018" if you would like to give to this.
Is generosity of time, energy and money a better measure of spirituality than the level of bible knowledge?
In what ways could tithing be described as a training ground for developing the habit of generosity?
Is it reasonable to suggest that in light of the cross, followers of Jesus could be radically generous with their time, energy and money?
Would your colleagues, friends and family describe you as the most generous person they know?
Is it reasonable to suggest that a tithe should be given to your local church?
In what ways should churches be funded if not through tithes and offerings?