Last year, I took a course for my master's degree. The course was on evil. I partly took the course because I was curious what they would say. Actually, I thought it would be funny if you could major in evil. I also took the course because I thought I would do okay, based on my theological education, as well as my personal experience. (The course I'm taking right now is on love and friendship. I'm worried that I won't do as well.)
Out of 28 courses I've take so far, this one influenced me the most. I always thought that evil was something about personal choices - actions and attitudes that displeased God. I usually think of sin as being a private offense about God. But there's a whole other side to evil that I hadn't really considered. When a moral person goes to work as a train engineer, there could be a problem - if that train engineer is working on the route to Auschwitz in the early 1940s. When a plantation owner works his property, there's a problem, no matter how good a person he might be, no matter how nicely he treats his slaves, if he is in fact a slave owner. It's not enough to be a moral person. We also participate in structures and organizations which may be evil, even if we act in a very moral way within these structures.
This really began to mess with my head. I began to wonder what structures I participate in that are evil. One of the issues I began to wrestle with was my view, and society's view, of evil. I began to re-read the Scriptures that talked about justice, of God's concern for the poor. I read passages like Amos 5:24: "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
I still don't have a lot of answers, but I began to realize that this was a blind area. What if society as a whole lacks compassion for those who are poor? What if I've bought into that as well? We've been looking the past few weeks at what the Bible says about our possessions, and the responsibility that comes along with them.
The first week, we looked at Agur's prayer - a prayer that I doubt many of us have prayed. Agur said, "Give me neither poverty nor riches! Give me just enough to satisfy my needs" (Proverbs 30:8). We talked about the danger that comes when we have more than we need - the situation most of us are in. Somebody's defined rich as anyone who can afford to buy a book. That makes pretty well everyone here rich.
Last week, Dwayne talked to us from Isaiah 58 about what a true fast is like:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
If you're like me, you agree with what we've talked about so far - at least reluctantly. You there's also part of you that's holding back.
Whenever somebody challenges me to give generously to the poor, or to some other cause, I find myself saying, "Hold on. I'll give, but I'm pretty tight myself." There's part of me that would like to help, and I'm glad there are people like Dwayne who do help, but then I want to say, "I wish I could help, but..." or "I wish I could do more, but..."
Can you relate to this? Here's what I know about us. We're all living on a percentage of our income. Some of us are living on 80%, maybe even less. Some of us are at 95% or even 100%. Some of us are living at 110% of our income. We're going into debt, barely even getting by. We'd like to help others, but we're too tight to help without feeling a lot of stress.
I sometimes think, "If only I had another x thousand dollars." You can fill in the blank. The funny thing is, I seem to feel like this no matter how much I make! Fifteen years ago, when I was in school, I was making about eight thousand dollars a year. I thought, "If only I had a thousand more, I could manage." I got my first job. I thought pretty much the same thing. Every year, it's always the same. Sometimes the extra amount I'd like is a little bit more. I'm making way more than I did fifteen years ago, but I'm always a little short of what I really want to do.
I think I'm pretty typical. Most of us consume almost as much (sometimes more) than we make. We get more, we spend more. So, really, it's not about our income. It's about lifestyle. We're making more than we've ever made before, but it's still not enough.
As a result, most of us have a lot of stress when it comes to money. We dread having the money talk with our spouses. We're always stressed out, and then when we hear somebody like Dwayne talk, we say, "I'd love to help out, but you don't know my financial situation."
We're not the first ones to feel this way. If you have a Bible with you, open it to Malachi 3, the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi lived right around the time that the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt. When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to check on how things were going, he discovered that things had fallen apart. People weren't observing the Sabbath day; tithing was being ignored; the priests were corrupt. It's about this time that Malachi came along and addressed the situation of that time.
One of the reasons that people had cut back on their giving was probably their own financial situation. They were saying, "What's up with God? The crops haven't been so great lately. How am I supposed to be generous with what I'm making?" That's where we pick up, in Malachi 3:6. God says, "I am the LORD, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already completely destroyed." In other words, God says, "Things haven't changed because I've changed. I've stayed the same. I'm the covenant keeping God. Things have changed because you have moved away from me."
God then issues an invitation for the people to return to him, in verse 7: "'Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my laws and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,' says the LORD Almighty."
You've got to love what happens next. "But you ask, 'How can we return when we have never gone away?'" It's pretty silly to ask a question you don't want the answer to. The people were completely unaware of the reasons why their relationship with God wasn't going so well. God replied: "Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me! But you ask, 'What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?' You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me" (Malachi 3:8).
Here's where it gets a bit confusing. The tithe literally means a tenth. Back in Israel, though, there were three tithes. The first tithe or 10% was collected from all the produce and livestock and given to support the priests. The second tithe, or 10% of the rest, was brought to Jerusalem and consumed in a festival. Then, every three years, a tithe would go to the poor. Nobody can figure out if this was in addition to the other two tithes, or whether it replaced the first one. But there was a lot of giving going on!
For obvious reasons, when times were tight, people scaled back from completely tithing. But God said, "You're robbing me." They were doing leftover giving. They paid all their regular expenses, and then waited to see if anything was left over to help God and the poor.
As a result, their financial situation got worse, not better. Malachi 3:9 says, "You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me." The people had cut God out of their financial lives, but then they still expected God to bless them. They were saying, "God, please provide for me. Help those crops grow," while at the same time they had told God to stay out of their finances. God was saying, "As long as you're going to cut me out of your financial life, you're going to experience the consequences."
Then God issues an invitation. Verses 10-12:
"Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do," says the LORD Almighty, "I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won't have enough room to take it in! Try it! Let me prove it to you! Your crops will be abundant, for I will guard them from insects and disease. Your grapes will not shrivel before they are ripe," says the LORD Almighty. "Then all nations will call you blessed, for your land will be such a delight," says the LORD Almighty.
This is the only time God tells us to test him. We would say, "Improve our financial situation, then I'll be generous." In other words, "Take care of my financial needs, then I'll be generous to you and to the poor." But God says the opposite. After we take care of giving to God first, and helping the poor, then God will take care of the rest.
The greatest thing that you and I could do to improve our finances would be to invite him back into the equation. We sometimes think, "I'll do this when things get better," but they never quite get better. "I'll wait until the economy improves." It's easy to forget who controls the economy. God isn't waiting in church for us to arrive and give him something. God's running the world that we live in. He's not just part of our life. He's all of life. It's silly to try to cut him out, thinking that will help us get ahead.
My struggle - our struggle - is to believe what he's promised. It's to refuse to say, "I'd like to help, but..." God says that when we're generous to the poor, he more than makes up the difference. He always takes care of our needs. "If you help the poor, you are lending to the LORD-and he will repay you!" (Proverbs 19:17) "Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing. But a curse will come upon those who close their eyes to poverty" (Proverbs 28:27).
God says that as we make his kingdom our primary concern, he will take care of everything else. "He will give you all you need from day to day if you live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern" (Matthew 6:33).
The challenge is this: beginning today, beginning right where we are right now, no matter what our financial situation, that we include sacrificial, joyful giving to the Lord, and to the poor, in our budgets, believing that God will take care of us.
The real issue isn't what you have, or how little you have. In your bulletins, there's an envelope. Take it out and open it. How much does it take to be generous? You've got two pennies there. That's all it takes. One day at the Temple, Jesus watched people give their tithes and offerings. Some think that the amount each person gave was announced. Imagine if we did that today. They probably yelled out, "Four hundred dollars!" "One thousand dollars!" Then this old lady comes up, and I can imagine that they said, a bit quieter this time, "Two cents." Big deal. Except Jesus said, "The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they'll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn't afford-she gave her all" (Mark 12:43-44 The Message).
The most generous example of giving in the Bible, apart from Jesus, was somebody who was worth only two cents. Now you all have two cents. That's all it takes to be generous.
I don't know what you're going to do with the two pennies you were given this morning. Go crazy with it if you'd like. On the other hand, you may want to put it somewhere as a reminder that that's all the money you need to be generous. Your net worth can be reduced to that amount, and it's still enough.
It's pretty easy for you and I to give two cents, because we have way more than that. So let's try something different. Pull out your keys and your purse or wallet. I'm going to call the ushers to take up the offering. Just kidding! But let's do something different. Let's surrender it to God and say, "It's enough for me to be generous. Everything I have, it's yours. I'm going to use it not just for myself, but to benefit others."
When we surrender everything to God, he lets us keep most of it. But it is enough. It's enough to give generously to God, to invite him back into our finances. And it's enough to give to help the poor. Let's pray and surrender it to God.