(Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30)
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock,
he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
A couple days ago I witnessed something that is uncommon these days. My three younger kids and I were out getting some grocery shopping done. While standing in the check-out line, I noticed my two little girls crouching down beside the candy/toy stand. They were transfixed by a pair of small princess figurines. My girls weren’t nagging me to get them the figurines, perhaps because they’ve grown accustomed to receiving the typical response of ‘no’ when they ask me to buy them such toys. But boy, they were gazing ever so longingly on those princesses! And their gazes didn’t go unnoticed by the kind lady who stood in front of us in line. After she had paid for her items, she squatted down next to the girls, surveying their objects of adoration. The lady asked the girls which were their favorite princesses and asked me if my son liked the little cars. “Ummm, sure,” I sheepishly responded. “Let a grandma spoil these sweethearts, won’t ya?” she asked. “I suppose,” I responded. She placed the items on the register, paid for them, and was on her way with my girls crying out, “Thank you, thank you!” It was a rare act of pure generosity that delighted my kids for the rest of the day.
Of course, as a pastor, I have the special privilege of seeing great acts of generosity shared between people on a more common basis. Sometimes these great acts can be as simple as a tender touch or a comforting word. Sometimes they can come in the form of a sizable check made out to the church or a cake shared in times of fellowship. Sometimes they come in volunteering for mission outreach or leading a Sunday school class. Acts of generosity, both great and small, are common around our churches if not our greater society. What a blessing it is to be immersed in the church and its vast multitude of acts of generosity! If only our greater society would encourage the same generosity as in our churches then perhaps we might be living in a more loving world. Nonetheless, it was a blessing to witness the lady’s small act of generosity in the store the other day.
As always, God’s timing is perfect as our readings for this week lift up the importance of generosity; in particular, God’s generosity. All of the readings, in one way or another, highlight God’s rather unusual way of being generous to us. But before we explore the readings, I want to first prepare us understanding the importance of generosity. If you are like me, you may wrestle with a question that invariable pops up when the words ‘generosity’ or ‘giving’ come up in the conversation: why should we be generous? What do we stand to gain by being generous? Sorry, that was two questions! But the 2nd question is really just an extension of the 1st question. Why should we be generous? If we had more time, I would love to go around the room and hear some of your answers. However, in my reflections this week, I came across others’ answers to this question. Believe it or not, we’re not the first ones to wonder why we should be generous! No, many people have offered their opinion on why we should be generous. Here are some of their responses:
“Generosity gives you a good reputation, and a good reputation is pure bank.”
“Tax benefits. Not deep or philosophical, but it definitely influences at least some
people to donate (or donate more).”
“Because what goes around comes around.”
“Sooner or later I or someone I care about is going to be stuck in a hard spot and will be counting on the generosity of a stranger to help them out. I would like to live in a world where such help is offered when it is desperately needed. Being generous to others when I can is the best way I can see to help create that world.”
“Being generous helps people, and it makes people more willing to help you in return.”
“Be generous because you hope that others will be generous in their dealings with you.
If everyone plays this way everyone wins.”
“Be generous because you CAN.”
Those were but a few of the reasons that people have given for being generous. Do any of the reasons resonate with you? I tend to gravitate towards the whole ‘karma’ justification for generosity and giving. We give because we have faith that God will return our giving to us in kind.
But this reasoning is inherently flawed. Sure, it acknowledges a faith in an all-powerful God, in a fair and just God, but this reasoning also rests on the belief that God will somehow repay us for our giving. And if that’s the case, then our giving is purely selfish: we give in order to receive…eventually! How terribly selfish a belief!! And yet, and YET…God promises to bless us when we give. All throughout Scripture we hear of how God blesses those who give. Proverbs 22:9 reads, “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” Better yet, Proverbs 19:17: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.” Jesus himself says in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” What about Acts 20:35: “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”? It is hard to be generous without the belief that God will repay us for our generosity. Scripture tells us God blesses us for our generosity, repays us in full, measure for measure. Can we give selflessly, without relying on God to repay us for our giving?
Sure we can! I don’t imagine the lady in the store gave to my children relying on the belief that God would repay her eventually. It was an act of pure selflessness. Perhaps when we approach Scripture like this that clearly states God blesses us for our giving, we might consider exactly how God blesses us. When we give of our time, talents, and treasures, does God repay us with equal time, talents, and treasures? No, of course not. We aren’t given back the time we give away. We aren’t given back the talents and treasures we give away. We’re given back new, unexpected gifts from God. God blesses us with so much more than time, talents, and treasures. God blesses us with an understanding of God and how God gives.
I’m reminded of an ancient story about a woman who finds a valuable stone in a river. She places the stone in a bag. Later a traveler comes to the woman and asks for something to eat. While she is reaching in the bag for a crust of bread, the traveler sees the valuable stone. He asks her to give him the stone. She readily does so and throws in some bread, as well. The man thinks he has it made; but several days later he searches for the woman, finds her and returns the stone. He tells her that he is returning the stone in hopes of getting something even more valuable from her. The woman asks what that would be. The traveler says, “Please give me what you have that enabled you to give me that stone.” You see, the woman had an understanding of how God gives—out of pure selflessness. Once we understand how God gives, we understand how to receive pure joy and contentment.
Which brings us to our assigned readings for today. In our reading from Jonah, we read of how God changes his mind of destroying the city of Ninevah. God decides to give new life to the people of Ninevah and this greatly angers Jonah. Not so much because he wants Ninevah destroyed but rather because he knew that God would give Ninevah new life. And yet God persisted in getting Jonah to come to the city and condemn it to God’s destruction. Jonah storms off in a huff and God proceeds to alternate between giving and taking away from Jonah. First God gives Jonah a bush, then he takes it away, then God gives Jonah a “sultry east wind” and takes it away. Lesson to be learned: God’s generosity is not easily understood yet gracious, merciful, and given with steadfast love.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul highlights yet another seemingly paradoxical display of God’s generosity: “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” It was God’s generosity that sent us the Son to live, die, and raise from the dead so that our sins may be forgiven. We are able to return to a right relationship with God through the suffering of the Son. God so graciously gave us the Word so that we might also suffer for Christ. The Word enables us to believe in Christ and suffer for him. What a strange gift indeed! A gift that generates both belief AND suffering!! Again, a generosity not easily understood yet gracious, merciful, and given with steadfast love.
Jesus’ parable in Matthew only further illustrates the strange generosity of God. The laborers were bewildered by how they all received the same daily wage. Some of them worked the full day while others worked only parts of the day. The ones who worked the full day should have logically received greater pay than those who worked only parts of the day. Like Jonah, the laborers received a hard lesson about the generosity of God. The all learned the hard way that God’s generosity is not easily understood yet gracious, merciful, and given with steadfast love.
Of course, is God’s generosity really hard to understand? It is if you believe that God gives in the way that we give most of the time. You see, most of the time we give selfishly. All too often, we give so that we might receive, if not from others than from God. This is not how God gives. God doesn’t need anything from us. God isn’t expecting anything from us in return. God gives entirely out of selflessness. God gives for the simply sake of giving. God gives perfectly. Is this really that hard to understand?
Well, some of us have come understand God’s generosity. The lady in the store the other day understood God’s generosity. How about someone a little more recognizable? In my reflections this week, I came across a story about Alexander the Great. The story is told that one day a beggar by the roadside asked for alms from Alexander the Great as he passed by. The man was poor and wretched and had no claim upon the ruler, no right even to lift a solicitous hand. Yet the Emperor threw him several gold coins. A courtier was astonished at his generosity and commented, “Sir, copper coins would adequately meet a beggar’s need. Why give him gold?” Alexander responded in royal fashion, “Copper coins would suit the beggar’s need, but gold coins suit Alexander’s giving.”
The lady in the store and Alexander the Great understood how to give selflessly without any expectation for return. They gave generously. Their giving was not easily understood yet gracious, merciful, and given with steadfast love. Their generosity reflected God’s generosity. We are assured of God’s blessings of grace, mercy, and steadfast love if only we…give as God gives.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.