A Spirituality of Generosity
So there I was at Shop-Rite the other night. Doing some grocery shopping, getting all kinds of delicious vegan food. Stocking up cuz I hadn’t been there in a while. And I was kind of in a hurry to get home cuz it was late. As I was at check-out, the cashier asked me something about donating to something and I said “No thanks.” When we were bagging my stuff I asked her more about what she said, and she told me she had asked about rounding up my money to the nearest dollar and donating the change to the food bank. Here I was spending over $100 on food and I had declined to give 50¢ to the food bank.
Now I’m a monthly giver to ELCA World Hunger, Child Fund, and some other good charities—in addition to my church tithe. So I convinced myself not to feel too guilty about denying the food bank 50¢. Plus I can always do it next time. But what really struck me is how quickly I said no. How my reaction was to say “No thanks” without even thinking about it.
It seems it’s human nature to ignore others in need when we’re on autopilot. It takes some focus and awareness to be generous. It doesn’t really come naturally, it’s a spiritual practice that we need to work at.
Christian theologians have often said that inherent selfishness is original sin. The presence of this selfishness in us is part of our survival instinct, but it often comes at the expense of others. That’s what makes cultivating generosity such an important spiritual discipline. It’s one of the fruits of the Spirit, meaning it’s something that grows in us from a life rooted in Christ. When we bring in spiritual awareness we become more generous, and nurturing such an awareness seems key to Jesus’ parable here.
The poor man in Jesus’ story, Lazarus, sits outside the rich man’s gate and begs for crumbs. He is hungry and covered with sores. He is poor, starving, and sick. Yet his suffering is ignored. The rich man in Jesus’ story built a large gate to keep poor beggars away. He feasts sumptuously every day and lives the good life. Presumably he sees Lazarus every time he leaves his mansion. And apparently, he’s become so accustomed to seeing the poor man that he’s learned to ignore him. He’s become numb to his neighbor’s poverty.
There is a great chasm between these two men in this life and the next. The gate in this parable is a clearly a symbol of the earthly chasm, created by the rich man. A fancy gate to keep out the poor, a gate that’s locked and separates the haves from the have nots. The chasm in the next life acts like a gate too. Separating the one who suffered and the one who ignored suffering. Now let’s be clear. This parable is told to instruct us on how to live in this world, not to describe what the afterlife looks like. The image of Hades is drawn from Greek mythology and the image of the chasm is something to be juxtaposed with the earthly gate created by the rich man.
Some scholars suggest that the rich man is still trying to give orders to Lazarus. He wants Lazarus to fetch him some water, and then to warn his brothers. He still seems to think Lazarus is someone inferior he can boss around. But I tend to have a more sympathetic view of the rich man. I mean what’s a few decades of sumptuous living compared to being cared for by Abraham? And what’s an earthly life of poverty compared to being tormented by the flames of Hades? The story doesn’t talk about how long he must endure this, maybe until he learns his lesson or maybe forever. Remember again, it’s a parable and not an ontological description of higher reality. But still the rich man in the story seems like a victim here too. A victim to his own blindness and selfishness. Blindness and selfishness that have tremendous consequences for both men. He wants to warn his brothers not to be so blind and selfish, because if he could only have seen more clearly, things would’ve been different.
And so I think the point of this parable is that Jesus is training us to see. To see the beggars at our own door. To be mindful of opportunities to help. To cultivate our generosity and to heal our personal blindness and selfishness.
Admittedly, it takes a great deal of focus to remain concerned about our sisters and brothers living in poverty. It’s hard enough being a middle class person, or even an upper class person these days. There’s a lot of stress and anxiety that comes with life. Even for those with no financial stress there’s still family problems, health issues, and the mental-emotional struggles of life. This world is hard. This world is busy. This world demands a lot from us. So it’s easy to become lost in our own problems and forget about those who have nothing. We have our own legitimate things to deal with, so it’s hard to have any energy left to serve the poor. And sure we hear about all the terrible things in the world on the news, but there’s so many things wrong with society that it’s hard to know where to start. We hear about poverty and injustice and racism and wealth inequality so much that we get compassion fatigue. It’s hard enough dealing with our own problems, never mind taking up some cause for others.
This is why it’s extremely important to understand generosity as a spiritual practice. Like weight training, let your generosity grow little by little. And take good care of yourself so that you won’t be bogged down by daily stressors. Take Sabbath time, read scripture, pray and meditate. Discern how God is calling you. Perhaps you’ll be amazed that you find a new passion or discover the energy to help in ways you’ve always wished you could. Be mindful of those in need and feel the righteous anger that inspires you to make positive change.
It’s important we understand what clouds our vision and stunts our generosity. If watching too much TV makes us numb to the suffering of others, turn if off. If spending too much time at work is costing you your humanity, ask God for strength to make whatever changes necessary to find balance. We’re more productive for the good of others when we feel less overwhelmed. So take care of yourself and focus energy on the problems you can solve, rather than being distracted and overwhelmed by all the problems you can’t.
This parable is a call to awareness. Awareness of the poor man, woman, or child at your gate. Awareness to live generously (like our Thrivent t-shirts say!) and to make generosity our personal spiritual practice.
But the message of Jesus isn’t just about personal generosity. The message of Jesus in this parable and throughout the New Testament challenges us to look communally, to look at poverty as societal issue. Talking about social justice isn’t just an agenda of some pastors; it is a cornerstone of the Biblical narrative, something Jesus and the Old Testament prophets were deeply concerned with on a macro-level.
In our own society there is a chasm separating the rich and the poor. We live in a world of staggering inequality. We live in a world where the wealthiest 26 people possess as much wealth as the bottom 3.8 billion (that’s half the world’s population). And a country where the 3 wealthiest people possess as much wealth as the bottom half. In the state of Connecticut, if you work full-time and earn minimum wage you won’t be able to afford your own apartment. In fact, only in 22 counties in the nation can a full-time minimum wage employee afford a one bedroom apartment.
I could list some more facts, but I think you get the idea. There’s enough money and enough food and enough shelter in the world to take care of everybody, and yet we don’t do it. As Christians we should be outraged by this. It amazes me, considering Jesus’ clear teaching, that more churches aren’t radically committed to ending poverty. I think it’s fair to say that economic justice is THE issue God is most concerned with when it comes to how His children live on Earth together.
As Christians we are not only called to be more personally generous, but to bridge the chasm between rich and poor, to strive for a more just society. As Christians we are called to love the poor and the rich; and to heal systems of economic injustice as well as personal blindness and selfishness.
Rev. William Barber, Christian pastor and leader of the Poor People’s Campaign believes that our country needs a moral revival. A moral revolution that reminds us of our calling to care for the poor, the stranger, and the outcast. The Bible tells us over and over and over again to care for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. And we do this not just by personal charity, but by using whatever power and privilege we have to transform the world.
Let us be convinced of this by Moses and the prophets and by the One who rose who from the dead. Let us live out this moral revival in our personal lives with the spiritual practice of generosity; and let us become a force of real change in our state, in our nation, and in our world. Following Jesus’ call to love and serve every Lazarus we see.