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A pastor in Dallas tells of a man in the church who once made a covenant with a former pastor to tithe ten percent of their income every year. At the time, both the man and the pastor were young and neither of them had much money, but things changed. The man tithed one thousand dollars the year he earned ten thousand, ten thousand dollars the year he earned one-hundred thousand, and one-hundred thousand dollars the year he earned one million. But the year he earned six million dollars he just could not bring himself to write out that check for six-hundred thousand dollars to the Church. He telephoned the minister he had made the covenant, long since having moved to another church, and asked to see him. Walking into the pastor’s office the man begged to be let out of the covenant, saying, “This tithing business has to stop. It was fine when my tithe was one thousand dollars, but I just cannot afford six-hundred thousand dollars. You’ve got to do something, Reverend!” The pastor knelt on the floor and prayed silently for a long time. Eventually the man said, “What are you doing? Are you praying that God will let me out of the covenant to tithe?” “No,” said the minister. “I am praying for God to reduce your income back to the level where one thousand dollars will be your tithe!”
You can all rest easy, the pledge drive is not starting today (but I won’t apologize if that story tweaked you a little). What the story did get me to thinking about was generosity and how far we are willing to take the idea.
For starters, when we talk of giving, we most often think of money or some other tangible item: food, clothing, etc. And knowing you all, I know that you do just that. You have very charitable and generous hearts in your support of various needs throughout the community. I’ve even had the opportunity to brag on you and your giving through our Community Tithe program (where we give back to the community 10% of all income). You probably saw where news made a big deal over the $500 we gave to Emerson School in paying off their student lunch debt. That’s a good thing and just so you know, we’re also paying off a $750 debt at Adams School and a $2,100 debt at Hayes (that one is in honor of Jean McCollough, who taught there for so many years). But it is not stopping there, we’re looking into helping Taft where Janet Wright worked and Coolidge where Marianne Gray worked. Mary (McDonald), I’m almost afraid to ask what the debt is at the high school, but… Back to Emerson School: you gave $500 and it is a beautiful thing, however, if that was ALL that we’ve done, I would have actually been a bit uneasy by the big todo that was made, but… that’s not all you’ve done. Since we started that program, you’ve given more than $100,000 back into the community. But it doesn’t stop there, because, as we said, we often think of giving in terms of dollars and tangible items, but you also give of your time. You serve on boards and volunteers: from Loaves and Fishes, to Our Daily Bread, to Leonardos, to Vance AFB support, to the CDSA, to so many more; not to mention what you do in the church: Stephen Ministry, Prison Ministry, Nursing Home Ministry, Eucharistic Visitors, Altar Guild, Choir, Acolytes, Lectors, Ushers… I could do this for awhile.
So the question is: how far are you willing to take this spirit of generosity? The fella making six million a year had enough—even an abundance—but then he reached a limit. It became too much, even though it was the same percentage. So when do you say, “Enough. I can’t give anymore. I can’t do anymore.”
Now, understand, I’m not criticizing you… at all. You folks are amazing, yet this spirit of generosity does not end with giving money and time. As you know, it also applies to much greater ideas: mercy, grace, love. So, do you have a limit when it comes to these? How much is too much mercy, too much grace, too much love? “You know what, Padre—I’ll give you $600 worth of mercy, but $6,000… no. I’ll give you $6,000 worth of grace, but $60,000… you’re asking too much. I’ll give you $60,000 worth of love, but $600,000… heck, I don’t even give myself THAT much love.” But you see, when it comes to these, you have to consider the standard that has been set. Want to know what the standard for love is? Most folks don’t, but I’m going to tell you anyways: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) The limit of our mercy, our grace, our love should be as lavish, abundant, and—by the world’s standards—as ridiculous as Jesus’. The limit of our mercy, grace, and love, is the cross.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus appears to be giving and approving of some very shrewd and dishonest business practices, but what you have to keep in mind is that this is a parable. Jesus is not teaching morals. He’s teaching about how we are to show mercy, grace, and love.
Throughout the Old Testament, God tells the Israelites that they are to be his chosen people, a light to the nations. They are to convey his teachings and his Law so that all can walk in holiness, but instead of conveying the message and living it out, most of the people ended up falling into evil practices. The religious, the priests, upon witnessing this falling away, attempted to legislate morality and holiness by enforcing and passing more and more rules designed to bring about the desired holiness, but instead of drawing people closer, it pushed them further away.
In the parable, the shrewd steward is commended, because he saw the way to win friends was by reducing the cost. So, Jesus is saying to the priests, who are the stewards of the faith of Israel, if you want the current residents of the Kingdom of God to follow you and if you want to bring more into the Kingdom, stop raising the price of admission. Instead, slash the cost. Stop crushing the people under the burden and win them over with lavish mercy and abundant, amazing grace. Set no limits. Have such a ridiculous love for them that instead of cursing you, they run to you; and in running to you, they run to Our Father in Heaven, who for his part, will commend you and praise you.
Think of the words from our Psalm (113), starting at verse five:
Who is like the Lord our God, who sits enthroned on high *
but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth?
He takes up the weak out of the dust *
and lifts up the poor from the ashes.
He sets them with the princes, *
with the princes of his people.
He makes the woman of a childless house *
to be a joyful mother of children.
God does not crush his people into the dust. He lifts them up out of the dust and sets them in places of honor. We are to do the same. We are to do the same with our time, talents, and treasures; and we are to do the same with our mercy, grace, and love.
There is a story of a beggar by the roadside who once asked for alms from Alexander the Great as he passed by. The man was poor and wretched and had no claim upon the ruler, no right to even ask. Yet the Emperor gave the poor man several gold coins. A courtier was astonished at Alexander’s generosity and commented, “Sir, copper coins would adequately meet a beggar’s need. Why give him gold?” Alexander responded in royal fashion, “Copper coins would suit the beggar’s need, but gold coins suit Alexander’s giving.”
When you give, when you show mercy, grace, and love, even if a copper coin is all that is needed or required, give gold. Pour it on so lavishly, so abundantly, that it looks ridiculous to the world, but rises like sweet perfume to the Lord.
Let us pray: Lord, grant us simplicity of faith and a generosity of service that gives without counting cost. A life overflowing with Grace, poured out from the One who gave everything, that we might show the power of love to a broken world, and share the truth from a living Word. Lord, grant us simplicity of faith, and a yearning to share it. Amen.