Recognizing the times. Part 4 of 5: Generosity with a big G.

Have you ever had your train of thought interrupted? In Luke chapter 12, Jesus is trying to explain how important it is to be ready for the coming of the Messiah. To Him it is a matter of life or death, eternal life or eternal death. And as he is building up his argument, step by step, someone in the audience raises his hand and starts talking about money.

Luke 12:13-21 (NIV) Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Jesus’ initial answer to the question is another question, “Who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” It is a lot like when the rich young man came to Him saying “Good teacher what good thing should I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replied with the question, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

In both instances, I believe that Jesus’ question in reply to a question is meant to get us to pause and ask ourselves, Why are we asking Him that question? In other words, do we really believe He has the answer? Or more to the point: Are we willing to accept the answer He will give us, whether we like it or not? Because if not, we are wasting our time. If I don’t really think he is Good then why ask Him what is the good I must do. If I don’t really believe He is Just, why ask him to render judgment between my brother and I.

After that initial reply, Jesus’ answer really has nothing to do with what the man wanted (a piece of the family inheritance) but with what Jesus has been talking about all along.

To be prepared for the coming of the Messiah, I have to first choose which kingdom I will live in, God’s or the world’s. And the choice that I make is revealed by my allegiance: To which do I give my heart? The answer is: Whichever holds my treasure. And so, again, we find Jesus reusing key passages of His Sermon on the Mount.

This really is a repeat of the Sermon on the Mount

But I don’t think it is because Luke has decided to insert the Sermon here in his “topical arrangement” of the Gospel. Rather, as I said in the Introduction to this series, it seems like Jesus used repetition of images and of stories as one of His standard teaching tools. A phrase repeated more than once is easily remembered and so are the lessons associated with it.

The Sermon on the Mount, though preached early in His ministry, lays down the full picture of His doctrine for all people to hear and understand. Jesus really doesn’t hold anything back. Through it, we understand that if we want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we have to accept a radically different view of the world: There isn’t just one reality (the one that we perceive with our senses) but two.

The True reality, the one where life is eternal (as planned from the beginning by the Spirit of the Lord), can only be perceived by the spirit within us. But to live in that True reality means to reject the ways, the teachings, even the instincts of this world. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees fit perfectly within the kingdom of the world. Therefore, Jesus calls us to reject it.

Luke, Chapter 12, is a return to the themes of the Sermon on the Mount… even preserving its structure.

The whole introduction that starts with the Beatitudes and goes through all of Chapter 5 in Matthew, is here summarized in one warning: Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. In the original Sermon, the teachings of Chapter 5 pivot around a similar mention of the Pharisees, verse 20: (NIV) For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

(I invite the reader to go back to Matthew 5 and read it all in the light of that introductory warning in Luke 12 about the leaven of the Pharisees.)

In Chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus tells us that God has a requirement for how His children are supposed to live. And that, in that regard, the Pharisees and their teachings are the worst possible interpretation of that requirement. We can then look at the rest of Matthew 5, after that verse 20, as being a discourse on the difference between the way the Pharisees wanted to relate to the people around them in this world (by rules and the letter of the Law) and the way God wants his children to love those same people (as their neighbors, by the Spirit of the Law.)

Once having taken care of the “love your neighbor” commandment, Jesus continues, in Matthew 6, with the first and greatest commandment: “love God above all things.” Thus, Matthew 6 focuses on the “acts of righteousness” that are proof (the fruit of) that relationship with God: Prayer, Fasting, and the giving of alms.

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(Even though to us today, the giving of alms to the poor might appear to be another version of loving your neighbor, it wasn’t so to Jesus’ audience. We need to remember that that audience was Jewish. To the Jewish mind the ultimate expression of their relationship with God was living in covenant with Him. And that covenant was codified into the Law of Moses. Well, right in the middle of the full exposition of that Law, we find that caring for the poor and the stranger is an integral part:

Leviticus 19:9-10, 34 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field; and the gleaning of thy harvest thou shalt not gather. And thy vineyard shalt thou not glean, neither shalt thou gather what hath been left of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am Jehovah your God… As one born among you shall the stranger who sojourneth with you be unto you; and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am Jehovah your God.)

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When now we turn back to Luke’s chapter 12, we find that the “love God above all things” commandment also follows the “love your neighbor” one. Except here, given that the focus of the teaching is us being prepared for the coming of the Messiah, it is all stated in terms of our unwavering allegiance to the Messiah, above all things.

We read that part already. It is the passage that begins (NIV) “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more… Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.  Culminating in: “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.”

Even the explicit way in which Jesus puts Himself here, unmistakably, as the door into the Kingdom of God, already appeared in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…”

So, what comes next? In the Sermon on the Mount, after explaining God’s standard for the way He expects His children to obey the two great commandments, Jesus begins to explain how this can be accomplished and why it is so important. He says it this way:

Matthew 6:19-24 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust spoils, and where thieves dig through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust spoils, and where thieves do not dig through nor steal; for where thy treasure is, there will be also thy heart.

The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body will be light: but if thine eye be wicked, thy whole body will be dark. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great the darkness!

No one can serve two masters for either he will hate the one and will love the other, or he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

That is precisely what Jesus intended to do here in Luke 12. Except that that guy in the audience interrupted Him with his gripe about his brother and the family inheritance. But as we saw at the beginning of this post, that didn’t derail Jesus’ train of thought at all. Instead, he illustrated with a parable what he had said in the Sermon, in Matthew. And, to make sure we didn’t miss it, he ends in Luke using the same language: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

The how and the why: Generosity with a big G

If we want to be prepared for the coming of the Messiah, we have to be living in the Kingdom of God. And to live in that Kingdom we must reject the citizenship we had in the kingdom of this world because the two kingdoms are incompatible. We cannot serve both God and Mammon.

In the Kingdom of God, we live, by choice, as bondservants of the King of Kings. His priorities are our priorities. We live to serve Him and, therefore, serve humanity because we are sent the same way Jesus was sent (remember, John 17:18). How was Jesus sent?

Matthew 20:28 “… the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This is the HOW: We are supposed to live our lives the way Jesus lived His. Living this way, meeting God’s standard as His children comes naturally (though not easily).

It is a life lived outwards. A life of giving… giving mercy, giving justice, giving forgiveness. Indeed, of giving up our lives for the sake of saving the lives of everyone we can (as He did).

By contrast, the powers of this world – represented by mammon (money and all other wealth a person trusts in) – tell us they are here to serve us, to fulfill all our desires, to give us whatever in life we want. Life lived their way…

… is a life of taking. It is all about me getting all I “deserve”. It is about my rights, my freedom, my comfort, my pleasure, my needs. The other people around me really don’t come into the picture except to be recruited as means to help me satisfy my life. It is a life lived inwards.

Jesus is asking us to live our lives Generously. But that is not just about money. Generosity is a whole way of life, characterized by living with eyes open to see the desperate reality of this world. That’s why in the Sermon, Jesus used Solomon’s expression of the “good” or “single” eye.

Proverbs 22:9 He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed, for he giveth of his bread to the poor.

In the Proverbs, giving bread to the poor is not the definition of having a bountiful (or good) eye. It is the result: Because if we have our eyes opened to the light of the Kingdom of God, we are able to see the needs of others, the pain in others’ lives, the hurt that has taught them to act the way they act. And seeing that reality – plainly visible to the eyes of the spirit – we are moved to act accordingly: with God’s Love.

That Love may be expressed as giving money or other material help. But just as often it will be expressed as sincere forgiveness. It may be expressed as my choosing to give up my rights, or refusing to demand what is justly mine, all for the sake of protecting others from harm…

…not because those others are fellow believers but especially when they are not.

Because if we do not protect them, who will? They too are children of God. To live Generously is to live in the Kingdom of God for the sake of the people stuck in the mire of the kingdom of the world.

Why do they need us? Because the powers of this world only pretend to be here to fulfill all our desires. In reality, the power behind mammon, the ruler of the kingdom of the world, really wants the destruction of humanity.

John 8:44 … He [the devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and has not stood in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks falsehood, he speaks of what is his own; for he is a liar and its father…

John 10:10 The thief comes not but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I am come that they might have life, and might have [it] abundantly.

If indeed we are called to serve like Jesus served, we cannot let that power succeed. And the way we destroy its plans is by living to give Life. That is the WHY. Generosity with a big G has one purpose: retransmit the Light of the Kingdom of God.

The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body will be light: but if thine eye be wicked, thy whole body will be dark. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great the darkness!

Generosity takes the light that God has shined in our lives and pours it out, without reservation, on the world. But if we receive that light and then try to keep it only to ourselves (and those we deem “worthy”), all we do is quench it; and the result is that the darkness gets away with whatever it wants.

Then, indeed, how great the darkness!

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