Proverbs 11: 24-25
Is your world getting bigger or smaller? The question is not about how much you have but rather how much you share. In this sermon Rev. Miles talks about different ways of expanding your life.
Expanding Your World
Date: March 10, 1996
Author: Rev. David Miles
There is something I need to be honest about with you as I begin this sermon: I know very little about money. I figure that there is really no use in attempting to hide the truth in a church such as this one, where almost everyone understands things financial better than I do. In a church which is filled with people who are brokers, dealers, traders, and investment bankers, with people who deal in stocks, bonds, futures and options, with people who work as mutual fund managers, financial planners, investment counselors, and CPA's, how could I hide the fact that I am, what you might call, a financial bimbo?
Now despite my economic ineptitude, I do have a great deal of respect and appreciation for people who understand matters of money. And I am very fortunate to have around me people who make up for what I lack. My wife, Carol, keeps a meticulous checking account, pays all our bills on time, and is even able to comprehend our taxes. And here at the church, the finance committee does a great job overseeing our church's accounts and investments, while our treasurers handle with great care and precision the inflow and outflow of money in the church. I have noticed that whenever I get too close to what any of these people are doing they all seem to say, "Thanks for your input, David, that is really nice, but we've got everything under control." Maybe it had something to do with the fact that when someone once suggested that I invest in CD's I was ready to head out to the music store to buy more compact discs.
Yet, as fiscally challenged as I may be I believe that if someone is giving me a line about a particular investment strategy, I am able to tell when I am being suckered. For instance, upon hearing the investment advice from the book of proverbs, even I Know that this sounds a little fishy. Did you hear it when I read it earlier?
Listen to it again, and tell me if I am not right:
Some give freely, yet grow all the richer;
others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.
A generous person will be enriched,
and one who gives water will get water. NRSV
Now, I am no Warren Buffet, but that doesn't sound quite right to me, in fact it sounds backwards! If you are interested in increasing what you have it would only be logical to either invest what you have, or at least hold onto all your capital, rather than simply to give it away, right? Yet the proverb suggests that growth comes to those who freely give, or literally, in the Hebrew: "to scatter" what they have. It almost sounds like as if the proverb is condoning financial irresponsibility, while at the same time discouraging fiscal conservatism. For as it says, on the other hand, that it is those who hold on tightly to what they have who will end up losing what they have.
Now, despite my economic ignorance I have made some attempts to educate myself concerning matters financial. I have learned to read the front page of the New York Times business section each day, and sometimes I even venture to pages 2 and 3. I even went out and purchased a book called: The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money and Investing. It says: "an easy-to-understand, easy-to-use primer that helps take the mystery out of money..." Sound good to me. In it I read all about money, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, futures and options. But I have to say that nowhere in this book or in any of my reading have I found a single mention of the "give freely" approach to investing, or of the importance of generosity in developing a sound investment strategy. This proverb may claim to be wisdom, but it sounds anything but wise. In fact, it sounds as though it has things completely backwards.
Then again, this would not be the first time that we have read something in the bible that sounded as though it was backwards, would it? It would not be the first time that we heard something that sounded as thought it went totally contrary to human intuition.
The wisdom of the bible often leads to precisely the opposite conclusions of what we might expect to hear. It claims that to be wise, sometimes you have to do things that are contrary to your natural instincts. Biblical wisdom says that life is filled with paradoxes, such as the proverb which states:
A person's pride will bring humiliation,
but one who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor. (29.23)
This ancient paradoxical piece of wisdom sounds quite a bit like the words of one who
hundreds of years later who taught that:
The first will be last and the last will be first.
If you think about it Jesus always seemed to be speaking of such paradoxes, like the time when he explained that:
If you want to be great in the kingdom of God
you must be the servant of all.
He even went as far as to suggest that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And have you ever noticed that in his most famous sermon, the sermon on the mount, he beatitudes Jesus gives are really nothing more than one big bag of paradoxes?
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
for to them belongs the kingdom of God.
The life of faith is full of paradoxes. Some things in life, the bible warns us are just the opposite of what they appear, of what our instincts tell us.
Now, that may be true with religious matters, with spiritual things, but hey, we're talking about dollars and cents here! This is a numbers game, and we know that numbers don't lie. Two plus two equals four, and if you give two away, you have two less than you started with. Jesus and these other voices in the bible may know something about spiritual things, but when it comes to financial matters they are obviously out of their league.
Sure there have been some who seemed to have observed people who lived by the wisdom of which this proverb speaks. It was Bunyon who once wrote this of someone:
A man there was and they called him mad;
the more he gave the more he had.
It was Shakespeare who observed of another:
For his bounty, there was no winter in't;
an autumn 'twas that grew the more by reaping.
And there is the epitaph of another who, reflecting back on their life, seemed to affirm the same thing:
What I gave, I have.
What is spent, I had.
What I kept, I lost.
And, of course, there is the great prayer of St. Francis the one that begins:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Do you remember how that prayer ends?
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Yet as nice as this all might sound, which of us, after hearing this proverb, is going to run out and completely change our investment strategy? Is this truly practical wisdom for our lives, meant to be put into practice, or just religious mumbo-jumbo? I know that I could not make sense of the paradox of this proverb for myself, until I heard it in different words. I came across another translation of it which opened my eyes to it anew.
It was the well-known Presbyterian minister and author, Eugene Peterson, who rendered the proverb this way:
the world of the generous gets larger and larger;
the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller.
The world of the generous. What do you think it means to be generous? Most usually think it simply means that one is willing to give away some of what they have. Yet the root of the word generous is the Latin: "genus" from which we get the word generation and genealogy. It is a word that has to do with kin, with those to whom you are connected. At its root, generosity has to do with how wide you understand your circle of concern to be; how many that you think of as kin. True generosity is giving that is borne out of the knowledge of a bond with another as kin. Isn't that an interesting way to think of generosity? If that is true the real question about generosity is not how much did you give? But, who is your kin? How big is your family? How wide is your circle of concern?
According to the proverb, the world of the generous is large, there are many in their circle of concern, and so they open themselves up to the many who are part of their world. Generosity is less about the amount that one gives and more about the character that one has. A generous spirit manifests itself in many ways. It has to do with being open to new people, allowing for different ideas, and being able to make room for others. One can be generous with their time, with their home, with their energy, or with their love. It is not always about money. In fact, there are many who have little money to give at all, but are extremely generous in spirit. Just as there are some who, though they have made financial contributions but may not, in fact, have a generous spirit.
Giving money is not actually what makes someone generous, but chances are that one who is generous will be open to a wide circle of concern with who they are and what they have. And the result of their response, says the proverb, is that their world opens up before them and gets larger and larger.
Conversely, the proverbs warns, the world of the stingy is small, there are few in their circle of concern. One who is stingy is sees very few as their kin, or is maybe even concerned only for themselves. Where the posture of the generous is open, to basic posture of the stingy is to be closed. Instead of being concerned for others, the primary concern of the stingy is to maintain who they are and what they have. Those outside their small circle of concern are therefore not seen as opportunities to experience something new, but rather as potential threats to the way things are. Which may leave the stingy person defensive and suspicious.
Haven't we seen this in people we know? Ironically, it is sometimes those who have to most to give who end up being the most stingy, and living in the smallest world. Statistics show that, in our country, those who annually make six figures or more give proportionally less than those who make relatively little money. I guess the more you have, the more you have to lose. But the tragic result, according to our proverb, is that this small world of the stingy only gets smaller and smaller. And for some it may get so small that in the end they find themselves to be all alone. In the end the ability to be generous has little to do with what you have, but rather with how you see the world around you and how you see yourself in that world.
There is a wonderful movie for children and adults that I saw not long ago. It is called: "The Little Princess." It is a story about a little girl named Sarah who lives with her father in India in the early years of her life. They are a family of considerable wealth with a very comfortable lifestyle. While Sarah enjoys her life it is not her wealth that defines her but rather the love she feels from her father. Though her mother had died, her father's devotion to Sarah was unflinching, and what filled her life was not the generosity of material gifts, but the generosity of his love. He always told her the same thing, that she was a princess, and that she always would be, not matter what.
Suddenly, her father is called to serve for the British army in World War I, and Sarah is sent back to the United States to attend the prestigious girl's boarding school, where her American mother had gone. Because of her father's wealth and stature she is given the best room in the house. But she soon finds that the headmistress is a very stingy woman in every way. Unable to show any kindness and affection, she sets an unloving and uptight tone in the house, that seems to pull everyone else down. Everyone, except Sarah, who is so generous with her kindness, and open to everyone that soon almost the whole school is drawn to her. Her love even crosses the boundary as she reaches out to the little black servant girl whom no one is supposed to talk to.
But when word comes that Sarah's father is missing in action and presumed dead, suddenly Sarah's privileges are taken away. The evil headmistress says that Sarah is no longer a student at the school but must remain as another servant girl to pay off the bill that her father was never able to pay. She has gone from riches to rags in a day, but her generous spirit remains unchanged.
There is one scene that I found particularly moving. Sarah is out on the mean streets buying groceries for the school's cook, when someone mistakes her for a beggar girl and puts some money in her basket. She thinks about what to do with this windfall, and then enters a bakery where she buys a roll. But just as she sits down outside to eat she sees a homeless mother with three young children desperately trying to sell flowers to make enough money to buy food. Seeing the look on the children's faces, Sarah takes her roll and gives it to one of the children, who begins to devour it. As Sarah is walking away the mother sends the child after her with a flower for her kindness. Then as Sarah is walking back home she passes the neighbor's house where she knows they have just received word that their son was killed in the war. There, on the front door she leave the flower for him. The Indian man, who works as a servant in that home, sees this act of kindness, and a scene or two later, after being sent to bed without dinner by the evil headmistress, Sarah wakes up to a feast set before her prepared for her and her servant girl friend by the Indian man next door.
And so it goes. It doesn't matter how much she has, she just keeps giving whatever she has away, and it keeps coming back, more and more. Someone once so filled this little girl up that she always had something to give away. And the powerful thing about her story, is that her generosity seems to be highly contagious. The wider her circle of concern extends the more generous everyone in her circle becomes. She just keeps giving herself away, and though I don't want to give away the movie's ending, in the end her generous spirit leads to getting back more than she ever thought possible.
Have you ever known someone like Sarah? Someone with a generous spirit? Someone whose world is very large, and getting larger all the time? They are easy to spot. They are the ones going in opposite direction from everyone else who is trying to secure for themselves who they are and what they have. They may not always be doing the prudent thing, but when we watch their generosity, particularly as it even extends to include us, something deep inside us tells us that it is right. We face the paradox, and though it may go against what our good sense tells us to do, in the end we know that it is true.
Jesus once said:
Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Jesus knew all about the paradox of generosity. But he did not merely speak of this paradox, he, you might say, put his money where his mouth was, and lived this truth.
As the first words we heard this morning reminded us:
For you know the generous act of our lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich.
When we say Jesus was generous what we mean is that he had a lot of kin. He knew his family to be very large, and his circle of concern was very wide. And because of his generous spirit he just kept giving himself away all that he was, all that he had, until he had given in all; until his world had become so large that it included everyone, even you and me. But I better warn you of something. You better watch what happens to you, because this kind of generosity is highly contagious.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine master, grant that I may not seek so much
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Rev. David D. Miles was a pastor at Lamington Presbyterian Church in Bedminster, NJ.