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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

05 December 2005

Giving Too Much to God?

Q: There is a Scripture that says giving more than you have is not good; can you tell me where that is?

Lions, Wolves, and LambsA: The Bible encourages wisdom in the ways of the world. For example, Jesus told His disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16).” He also said in Luke 16:9, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

These expressions, at least in part, seem to be in debt to the contrasts made between the wise man and the fool throughout Proverbs. A wise man knows how to manage his earthly possessions well while the fool squanders his wealth. Indeed, we have a secular proverb saying the same thing: “A fool and his money are soon parted.” At first listen, it may have seemed to hearers of the parable of the Prodigal Son that Jesus was making such a comparison, for “the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. (Luke 15:13)”

The Widow's MitesThe way in which this question comes to me indicates that you may be trying to slow down not wasteful living but what you perceive to be over-abundant giving. You don’t appear concerned with someone who’s spending like the Prodigal Son but with one who is giving “too much” to the Lord. However, Scripture never places restrictions upon the offerings we give to God. Indeed, Jesus commended the widow who, “out of her poverty ... put in everything she had, all she had to live on. (see Mark 12:41-44)”

As the Gospel spread and took root in the years after Jesus’ death, Paul and others gathered offerings to support Christians in need, especially during a famine in Palestine that affected the Jerusalem congregation. In 2 Corinthians 8:1-15, Paul commented on Corinth’s rather modest response to the appeal for gifts. He bragged, instead, about the Macedonian Christians who, although relatively poor, responded richly, gave freely, and asked to do more.

Yes, stewardship of the gifts God gives us includes making honest attempts to avoid burdening others. There were times when Paul and others took “outside jobs” while preaching the Gospel so their hearers wouldn’t think of them as a financial burden. However, there’s never any command to withhold giving.

If it’s an older relative who gives out of poverty while younger, “richer” family members provide earthly support, perhaps that’s God’s way of drawing indirect gifts out of those who forsake opportunities to give directly. As we care for our elders (cf. 1 Timothy 5:16), we free them even more to give to the Church and to those in need.

Meaningless Statistical GraphInterestingly, giving out of poverty or beyond means isn’t restricted to Macedonian Christians or widowed believers during Jesus’ life. It happens to this day, as I’ve recently learned from an organization called Catalogue for Philanthropy. One thing they do each year is compile recent data on income and contributions to churches and charities. Using 2003 figures, the Catalogue ranks states according to the difference between income and giving. As a general rule, the poorest people give proportionally more than do the wealthier.

Mississippi, with the lowest average income, was sixth-highest in per capita giving. Only three states in the bottom twenty in income had negative correlations between giving and income. Otherwise, generosity consistently abounded among the less wealthy citizens of the United States. Meanwhile, the states with the three highest average incomes were among the bottom six in differences between income and giving. Connecticut had the most coming in but was only 27th in giving. New Jersey was second in getting and 38th in giving, tied in the rankings with Massachusetts (third and 39th).

I don’t share this to make smug anyone who lives in one of the positively-ranked states. Group statistics don’t tell us about an individual’s heart. I imagine that good givers live in the poorly ranked states while pikers dwell among the generous. However, these numbers help us examine our personal priorities and giving habits. They let us see ourselves in light of the Parable of the Rich Fool, who had plenty, grasped more, and lost all. God’s Law, applied by the Holy Spirit, can use these figures to convict us. God may well hammer cold, hard hearts with cold, hard facts before forgiving our spiritual bankruptcy and warming us to true generosity.

Treasure ChestFlee anxious concern with worldly wealth! Christ tell us, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:32-34)”

We are God’s treasure — the Father invested His Son’s life, work, blood, and death in us: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)” As the “return” on Christ’s investment, we honor the Son by totally investing in Him, in His kingdom, and in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)”

Thanks to Cranach for pointing me to the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

The Lions, Wolves, and Lambs graphic is from Tesselations.org; © David Annal and used by permission.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


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