At first I prayed for light:
Could I but see the way,
How gladly, swiftly would I walk
To everlasting day!
And next I prayed for strength:
That I might tread the road
With firm, unfalt’ring feet, and win
The heav’ns’ serene abode.
And then I prayed for faith:
Could I but trust my God,
I’d live enfolded in His peace,
Though foes were all abroad.
But now I pray for love:
Deep love to God and man;
A living love that will not fail,
However dark His plan.
And light and strength and faith
Are op’ning everywhere!
God waited patiently until
I prayed the larger prayer.
Some gifts are more welcome than others. We all have those birthday/ Christmas/ wedding or anniversary presents that we are not very enthusiastic about. But we take them with the good wishes of the giver and what grace and gratitude we can muster because we value their goodwill and kindness. Some of our most precious gifts are tokens of love and friendship which have little or no monetary value.
When I was a little girl we were allowed to bring our birthday presents and cards into school to show the whole class. I am sorry to say that there was considerable competition as to who had the most cards and the best present. But one thing I did learn in those early days was that we don’t all value the same things - my cowgirl outfit which I regarded as the ultimate gift did not arouse the admiration which I felt was its due: whereas someone else’s water pistol received far too much attention in my estimation.
Perhaps we need to think about our values and the things that are important to us as we grow up and our priorities change.
There are many examples of giving. We have come up with quite a few. Gifts are usually an expression of love and affection or sometimes gratitude. Giving can also take the form of devotion or service and sometimes it is not always meant in kindness: “I’ll give you a piece of my mind” is a common expression of disapproval.
We don’t always have a choice as with taxation. I am not quite sure if that qualifies as a gift. I’m not sure if you are paid for your labour if it would still count as a gift, sometimes maybe yes.
Various other concepts and entities rest alongside giving and sometimes overlap such as duty, debt, paying the bill and responsibility. They sometimes demand we put our hand in our pocket, or purse or give up some time which we do though perhaps not always with charitable thoughts.
In the academic worlds of philosophy and economics there are various treatise on giving. At least two broad types can be discerned. The first is pure altruism which in essence means pure sacrifice on the part of the giver, there is no reward at all.
Sometimes the giver may even sacrifice their life. Emergency workers such as firemen have sometimes made the bravest and most noble of sacrifices to save others and have been commended for so doing.
In other areas such as war or any act or anger there can be questions over whether the cause merited such sacrifice or sacrifices. Sometimes there would seem no choice. The military have their share of heroes. We live in an imperfect world.
There is also the reverse side of giving which is taking or accepting in good grace. Our greatest gifts come from God and our belief is that he wants us to use them to further his glory and to serve others, not just bury or waste them.
I referred to two broad types of giving and the second is labelled “Enlightened Self Interest.” In short it means that people acting in their own interests are nonetheless contributing toward the general good of society because they are wise enough to realise that the two coincide.
At the centre of this largely economic doctrine is the small business where the proprietor realises that keeping customers happy, even with the sacrifice of a short-term gain, is still advantageous because customers will return, the customer-base will expand and the prosperity of the business will grow accordingly. The principle can also be applied to other scenarios such as government and community projects.
Some politicians and economists believe that with just a little bit of trimming a whole country and indeed the whole world could be run on this basis. Not everyone agrees but “Enlightened Self Interest” is still a core principle.
The Covid pandemic has provided an example with rich countries offering vaccines to poorer countries. It is not just charity. The pandemic is a global problem and it is in
the interests of the whole world to bring it to heel. So extra spending now is a good investment.
Christians particularly like this doctrine because it is close to what Jesus called the second most important commandment in Matthew 22 verse 39 and elsewhere. The first and most important is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. But the second is “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In other words treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated.
Why cheat your neighbour. This will simply help to create a world where neighbours cheat each other. When neighbours go through a difficult time a short term sacrifice to help will pay dividends because if you fall under hardship your neighbours will help you creating a caring world.
I think that by definition giving and gifts must involve some sacrifice. Surely that is what they are. So we come to the question of when and how much to give. We don’t want to seem stingy but nor do we wish to cause embarrassment by being too extravagant or worse leaving the impression that we have an ulterior motive.
The readings give some guidance though not clear, specific directions. It is more for us to work out how they might apply.
In Elaine’s reading of 2 Corinthians 8 7-15 Paul is addressing the Corinthian church with advice on church matters.and the subject of giving. He is not laying down universal commandments to be applied to every situation. He says as much in the opening verses.
But he does provide an insight into Christian thinking upon which we can reflect to see what we can learn.
He appears to say quite early on in verse 9 that they are not expected to make the same sacrifices as Jesus Christ. In verse 12 he reiterates the Christian belief that gifts should not be valued according to their price in the shops or markets, but according to what the giver can afford and how much of their wealth has been placed in their gift. He says “if the willingness is there the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.” It would seem it is the thought that counts.
In terms of how much to give verse 13 is interesting. He writes “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.” Some translations use the world “balance”. Whatever they are not expected to impoverish themselves while others grow prosperous. In verse 14 he elaborates that it is their ‘plenty’ in effect any surplus that will help others and when they are in need the surplus of others will help them.
His general conclusion in verse 15 comes closest to declaring a universal axiom by stating it is written that “The one who had much, did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little.”
Finally let’s look at the story of the widow offering her two mites from our second reading: Mark 12: 41-44. This encapsulates all the Christian values of praising and
welcoming the spirit of an offering rather than it’s material value. She is rightly complimented by Jesus.
However, at least one scholar has picked-up the fact, and I‘m sure there must be others, that it is not clear if Jesus approves of this offering. He would not be critical of the widow herself, whom he has complimented, but of the temple for accepting her gift. It is not clear if she had made similar gifts previously, possibly when more affluent and what had happened to her husband’s wealth.
For now I am going to put my neck on the line by creating a hypothetical situation and at the same time assuring everyone that I have no say or involvement in our church finances. But what would we do if a modern day widow came to us having just lost her husband and said I want to give everything I have to the church. Let’s make her a little bit richer than the widow in the temple but typical of our own times. She and her husband had bought their own house, had some modest savings in the bank and were living off old age pensions.
But now she says to us “ I want to sell the house and give all the money along with my savings to you. And I want to make out a direct debit for my pensions to be paid straight into your account.” The value of the offering is not measured in financial terms but by the value of her own wealth and she is giving everything just like the widow in the parable.
What would we do? I know what we would like to do: book a wild holiday somewhere and all get away for a while.
I don’t think I need to ask anyone’s opinion to conclude that we would decline her offer. Whatever our initial questions, comments, thoughts or concerns we would get around to the principles of the reading given by Elaine from 2 Corinthians 8 7-15. There would be no ‘equality’ to use Paul’s word. There would be an ‘imbalance’ We would be concerned that the harm she could be doing herself would be far greater than any benefits to us or anything we could pass on to the community.
I think we would decline though of course offer all sorts of ways in which she could be involved in our activities and mission and I’m sure offer support.
So in conclusion as with so much in the Bible, Christianity and indeed life there are not always clear cut directions or clear pathways. We often have to look to ourselves and pray for guidance and in the end hope we make the right decisions.
Yet so much Christian teaching comes back to that second great commandment. Love your neighbour as yourself.
Our father which art in heaven
Hallowed by thy name
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done
On earth as it is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For Thine is the kingdom
The power and the glory
For ever and ever.
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