Avarice, greed, concupiscence and so forth are all based on the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The remark of Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) is based on the human truth that the more you give away, the more you are. It is not just for the sake of other people that Jesus tells us to give rather than get, but for our sakes too.(Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 5)
I hear it all the time among Christians. The attitude may be stated in many ways, but its essence is “We should give to those who are worthy of receiving.” This assumption is applied to the individual “charity” we may practice and the communal giving we, as a society, may share with those in need. Around election time, we hear some form of this perspective from countless politicians and voters.
However, there is a problem with this attitude for those who claim to be followers of Jesus. It is impossible to find any support for this approach to others in Jesus’ teachings or healings. The late and great William Sloane Coffin with characteristic wit made this observation: “Have you ever noticed how Jesus healed with no strings attached? He didn’t say to blind Bartholomeus, now healed, ‘Now don’t you go ogling beautiful women.’ To the owner of the withered hand he restored, Jesus didn’t warn, ‘No stealing now.’” (Credo, p 121) Christ condemned any “tit for tat” approach to life. We are to give without reservation. “Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.” (Luke 6:30) We should not even acknowledge to ourselves whatever “charity” we offer others. “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matthew 6:3) These are certainly some of the forgotten teachings of Jesus in our materialistic, capitalistic society. With such a generous spirit, Jesus couldn’t even be elected dogcatcher today in our self-centered, greedy culture. I doubt if he would even receive many votes from American Christians.
The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount are found in Matthew’s Gospel. (5:3-12) However, Paul in Acts 20:35 recalled another Beatitude from Jesus not found in the Gospels: “Remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Try telling that to a child at Christmas! Or to the CEO of a large corporation, or the finance chair of most churches, or perhaps any of us. It contradicts our natural tendency to look out for ourselves and our occasional willingness to share only what we think others deserve. How is it possible for Jesus to claim that it’s better to give than to receive? That the giver is more blessed than the one who receives? The traditional answer is that those who give will be rewarded by God either in this life (“Whatever you give, God will return to you tenfold” is a line used by many church leaders and TV evangelists) or in heaven. Such an interpretation is defended by referencing Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (I deal with this misinterpretation below.)
However, I believe that there is a more worthy reason why those who give can be more blessed than the ones who receive their generosity. Buechner observed that most of us live by the calculation that the more we get, the more we have. He contrasted that convenient assumption with Jesus’ perspective that the more we give away in love, the more we are. His observation is confirmed by another radical teaching of our Lord when he was talking about money: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21). My translation/interpretation of this verse is, “What you value is who you are.”
In Jewish thought, the heart was more the center of the will than of emotions. (The “bowels” as translated by the KJV was more the center of one’s emotions.) The heart was the place where one determined one’s values, priorities, and goals in life. It was also the secret place of the person known only by two: the self and God. The essence of your heart determines your ultimate allegiance and your true identity. As you dedicate yourself to that priority, you become molded into its image. You become what you value. In this process it’s easy to become so defined by that priority that we lose our authentic value as children of God made in Her image.
It’s also easy for most of us to recognize addictions to drugs, alcohol, or sex. However, it is far more difficult to recognize or acknowledge our addiction to money/wealth/possessions. Jesus saw money as the most dangerous idol tempting humankind. He said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Mammon is a Jewish term for money or riches.) Notice that Jesus did not say we should not serve God and money. Neither did he say it would be better if we did not serve God and money. He said we cannot serve both; it’s impossible to have two masters. I would suggest that much of our American culture is based on what Jesus said was impossible—in our hearts where we decide how to live life and what we value, we try our hardest to serve both God and money, wealth, and possessions with the latter almost always claiming our daily allegiance.
Addictions always lead to some form of idolatry. The more we claim our addiction the more it claims and transforms us. We become more like what we value/worship. And in that lethal transformation, we lose our authentic selves made in the image of God. As I wrote above, it’s so easy for us to see how alcohol, drugs, or sex can take over one’s life and destroy that person’s essential humanity. But because we are so seduced by money and wealth in our daily lives, we too often fail to recognize that addiction. Perhaps Jesus was correct—the most dangerous idol/addiction for us is money, but our familiarity and slowly evolving and growing commitment to such an idol render it almost impossible to recognize as addictive, much less idolatrous.
But what if we commit our lives to the way of Jesus Christ? His values and priorities? What if love, compassion, forgiveness, sharing, hospitality, peace, forgiveness, and humility defined our lives? Would we not become incarnate examples of such Christlike lives? Would we not be molded into an authentic humanness which reflects the very nature and values of God? And in that commitment would we not be giving ourselves over to the Living God who loves us unconditionally and is committed to our everlasting joy and fulfillment? Is this not what Jesus was talking about in those Sermon on the Mount passages which speak of God seeing us in secret and rewarding us. The “reward” is the fulfillment of the kind of love and joy we already begin to experience in this life. The “reward” is what God values which we see supremely defined in Jesus who never sought wealth, success, or position.
With any form of idolatry or addiction we become what we have. And none of us can take into eternity what we have. With Jesus, we become who we are—incarnate and free beings of self-giving, unconditional love destined for the enhancement of the love and joy we have already experienced.
God’s love as witnessed in Jesus is self-giving. But God knows that the more love is shared, the greater the one sharing is blessed by such love. Love is its own reward, and that’s why paradoxically it’s more blessed to give than to receive. But only those who choose love will ever know, much less experience, the truth of that paradox.