THEOLOGY OF GIVING
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [2 Cor 8:1-9; Ps 146:2, 5-9; Mt 5:43-48 ]
“You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Obviously, no one can be perfect except God alone. When the rich man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mk 10:17f) Obviously, the perfection that Jesus is asking of us is not moral perfection but of giving. We are all imperfect, weak and prone to fall into temptations and sins. But even if we are not always virtuous, at least we can grow in perfection in giving.
The most basic form of giving is loving those who love us. It is not so difficult to love those who love us. This is what the Lord said, “if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not?” Loving those who love us is another form of loving ourselves because we receive love in return. It is not yet pure love that can be considered agape. It is eros, or at best platonic love. This love is normally given naturally to our loved ones, our friends and our collaborators.
The second form of giving is to give those who are somehow related to us, even at a distance, without personal knowledge. This was the case of the Christians at Macedonia. When they heard that the Church in Jerusalem was in financial straits and needed help, even though they themselves were going through difficult times, they were ever ready to offer whatever assistance they could. This was the same reason why Paul appealed to the Church at Corinth to do their part in alleviating the difficulties the Church in Jerusalem was going through. “Because of this, we have asked Titus, since he has already made a beginning, to bring this work of mercy to the same point of success among you.”
The third level of giving is to total strangers with whom we have no relations at all. This giving is altruistic as there is nothing to gain from it. Such giving has no thought even of being acknowledged. It is given purely for humanitarian reasons, out of compassion and charity. This is particularly true for those who give to the poor and those who make appeal for help regardless of race, language or religion. Of course, for Christians, such giving is motivated by the love of God more than just merely humanitarian reasons.
However, the most difficult form of giving is forgiving. Giving to the poor and helping those in need is not as difficult as forgiving those who have hurt us, betrayed us, destroyed our reputation and caused injury to our name and that of our loved ones. This is the highest form of giving. This is what the Lord teaches us in the gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way, you will be sons of your Father in heaven.”
This utter giving is seen in the person of Jesus. He not only gave Himself by assuming our humanity, emptying Himself of His divinity to reach out to us, being one of us and one with us. He took our human frailties and infirmities so that He could identify with us in our sufferings, temptations, struggles and pains. As a compassionate High Priest, sharing in our sorrows, He could empathize with us and become for us the throne of grace. Having Himself been betrayed, wrongly accused, tortured and shamefully put to death on the cross for us, He led the way by forgiving His enemies even when He was hanging on the cross.
What, then, is the basis of giving? How can we give ourselves in such a manner? The theological basis for giving is from the nature of God Himself. God is identical with love since the nature of God is love. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Indeed, it is God’s desire that every man attains his highest good, finds fulfilment, happiness and completeness of life. God created man to share in His goodness and life. This explains why the Lord said, if we love and give to all regardless of who they are, good or evil we “will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike.” This is what the psalmist also declares, “He is happy who is helped by Jacob’s God, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who alone made heaven and earth, the seas and all they contain. It is he who keeps faith for ever, who is just to those who are oppressed. It is he who gives bread to the hungry, the Lord, who sets prisoners free. It is the Lord who gives sight to the blind, who raises up those who are bowed down, the Lord, who protects the stranger and upholds the widow and orphan.”
God gives equal opportunities to all men and women alike the possibility of finding fulfilment and happiness. We are all given sufficient grace to find salvation. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34) Later on at the Council of Jerusalem, he repeated this truth when He said, “God made a choice among you, I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.” (Acts 15:7-9)
Secondly, God gives everything to us in Jesus. St Paul wrote, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” (Rom 8:31-34) Hence, it is not enough to say that the essence of God is love. God is love in action. He is love concretized in history. So St Paul is not simply speaking about the philosophical nature of God’s love but the truth of God’s love as experienced in Jesus historically. Hence, he said, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:9f) So the basis of giving is that God who is love gives us Himself in Jesus; and in turn Jesus who loves His Father gives Himself completely to us. “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (Jn 14:31)
Thirdly, we are called to love because He first loved us and blessed us. St Paul sought to strike their heart when he said, “You always have the most of everything – of faith, of eloquence, of understanding, of keenness for any cause, and the biggest share of our affection – so we expect you to put the most into this work of mercy too.” Indeed, how can we be so ungrateful to God when He has blessed us with so many gifts in life? Like the Corinthians, we too have been blessed with good health, resources, opportunities, wealth and position. We should be using what we have not just for ourselves but for the good of others and be a blessing to others. The failure to love others and be generous means that we have taken the love of God and His blessings for granted. We lack graciousness because we think we have earned them by our own merits. We are not grateful to God or to anyone for what we are today and what we have. This is what Paul meant when he said to the Corinthians, “It is not an order that I am giving you; I am just testing the genuineness of your love against the keenness of others.” How much we love others in return will demonstrate how grateful we are to God for His unconditional love for us.
The Christians at Macedonia taught us that true generosity flows from gratitude. We read how Paul commended them on their generosity “how, throughout great trials by suffering, their constant cheerfulness and their intense poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity. I can swear that they gave not only as much as they could afford,” What generosity and sincerity on the part of the Macedonians! In spite of their own trials and poverty, they were cheerful and generous in sharing whatever they had. What is even more inspiring is that “far more, and quite spontaneously, begging and begging us for the favour of sharing in this service to the saints and, what was quite unexpected, they offered their own selves first to God and, under God, to us.”
Finally, we must not think that giving makes us poorer. Rather, we are enriched by our poverty as we enrich others. When we enrich others, we receive a different form of riches that money cannot buy, namely the joy of love and giving and true freedom. St Paul wrote, “Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty.” Jesus who became poor so that we might be rich in Him actually inspires us all to give as much as He did. He shows us the true meaning of living a life of freedom in love. So to be able to love in this manner, we must turn to the Lord to inspire us to love. This was how the Macedonians loved so generously in their poverty. No one is too poor to give or to love. This is possible, provided we are also like them who “offered their own selves first to God and, under God, to us.” When we give ourselves to God like the widow who gave her mite to God, He will look after us and bless us even more to bless others.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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