I Like Giving - Week One: "I Like Car"
This week we are launching a brand new sermon series for the month of May entitled, "I Like Giving." Each of these sermons is inspired by the book and the website of the same name. Generosity is not just a virtue--and it's certainly not an exclusively "Christian" virtue, but I do believe it is a virtue that flows from the very heart of God. I also think that for those of us who all ourselves Christians, it's more than just a virtue, it's a way of life.
Over the course of this sermon series, we are going to explore what it means to serve a generous God, whose generosity is built into our very DNA. You and I were made to be generous, it's how we were created. But in order to fully experience the benefits of living a generous life, we need to learn what it means to practice generosity as a lifestyle.
Today we're going to explore one of the most famous conversations Jesus had with someone about what it means to be generous: the story of the Rich Young Ruler from Mark 10:17-31.
Let's read that passage now:
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[a]”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Don't you just love the way Jesus handles this guy? The young man comes to him in earnest, and tries to butter him up by calling him "Good Teacher," which is a sign of great respect. Jesus kind of chuckles at this and asks the young man, "Why do you call me good? There is none good but God." It's like he's putting the guy on notice that he can't schmooze his way into this conversation--it's going to be straight up honesty.
And then he asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life? What do I have to do to live in God's kingdom?" Then Jesus responds by relating to him all of the commandments that relate to others--in other words, he leaves out the commandments like "No other gods before me," "No graven images" and so on. Interesting right?
So of course the young man responds immediately, "I've totally got this! I have kept all of those commands from birth. I've been a good person. I've faithfully kept the law. No problem!"
It says in the text that Jesus looks upon him and loves him. He saw something in this earnest young man that the young man didn't see in himself--potential, enthusiasm, something good. But he also knows that merely keeping the rules and regulations of religion aren't enough.
And then Jesus hits him with this: "Well there is one thing you haven't done. Sell everything you have and give it all to the poor. Then come and follow me.
It says in the text that after hearing this the "young man went away sorrowful, because he had a lot of possessions. He walked away from following Christ because he had a lot of stuff--things he had acquired. And he could not let them go.
Jesus turns to his disciples and says, "It's harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." When he said this, the disciples were kind of bummed. They reply to Jesus, "well than who gets to go to heaven? That doesn't seem fair! Do you really want us to be dirt poor all of the time?" You can imagine their dismay.
Then Peter speaks up, trying to put his best foot forward in the moment. "But Jesus," he says, "We have left everything to follow you." To which Jesus replies, "Listen, there isn't a single person who has left everything for my sake that won't receive a hundredfold of all of it---with persecution--and then in the world to come eternal life."
This seems like a strange saying. It's almost as though Jesus is saying that those that give up everything will have everything and then some not just in eternity, but now in this life---and oh yeah, there'll be persecution as well so there's that.
But if you examine both the story of the rich young ruler and Jesus conversation with his disciples, you can get a glimpse of what Jesus is trying to teach his followers. In fact, you can see how they are interrelated. On the one hand you have someone who is doing the bare minimum to get by, to be a good person without ever really giving anything up. Then on the other hand you see someone who seems to go over the top with his giving, but in reality is simply wanting that giving to pay off in the end.
The rich young ruler had led a righteous and very religions life. He kept the rules. By all outward appearances he was doing everything he was supposed to. And yet he was defined by his possessions. He lacked generosity--true generosity of spirit. His things made him who he was, and the thought of being without them created for him an identity crisis.
Peter's declaration about "giving up everything" to follow Jesus was the flipside of the same coin. In the end, it's not about doing something in order to be considered righteous. It's not about giving so you'll receive. This isn't a passage of Scripture that bolsters the prosperity Gospel movement, although it's misused to do so. Giving things away to curry favor with God isn't generosity. True generosity Jesus seems to be saying here is when your identity is grounded in a relationship with him--and all that goes with it, even persecution. It's when your generosity stems from caring less for the things you have than the Savior, you claim to follow.
In the kingdom of God, Jesus teaches his disciples, things are topsy turvy. The first are last, and the last shall be first. All of the ways that the world defines success, and the way we are taught to form our identity by what we have, spend, acquire, etc. mean very little in this kingdom. It's not impossible to be a wealthy Christian (and by almost every standard you can measure--most Christians in America would be considered fabulously wealthy in over 2/3 of the world), but it's impossible for those who are wealthy to find their identity in both their stuff and Jesus.
I was walking through the parking lot of the gym that I frequent far less often than I should and I saw a tricked out Mustang parked there with a vanity license plate with these letters MINE printed on it. I thought that was kind of interesting. I wanted to find the person and ask them "Is this really yours? Do you owe money on it? How did you afford to pay for it? Did someone give you a job, a promotion at your job? How did you get the ability to earn that promotion, where did it come from?"
"Mine" is one of the first words that pre-schoolers learn to say correctly, emphatically and in the right context. I sometimes watch my little four year-old with his friends while they play. When you're four and someone starts really enjoying one of your toys--even if you haven't looked at it in several weeks, and have probably forgotten it existed, you suddenly want it. In that moment you want the kid who is happily playing with your toy to know it is yours. "That's mine." you'll say. "MINE."
Earlier I mentioned that because we are created in the image of God, we contain the generosity of God in our very DNA. It's in our nature to be generous--it's how we should be. But early on in our development we also learn about "MINE" and what it means to have things, and how our things can shape our identity in our culture.
So what happens when we give? When we push back against the culture of MINE and do something differently? Well, I think it actually connects us more deeply with who we really are, and who God has always intended for us to be.
Giving can be messy. Figuring out how to lead a generous life doesn't always look neat and well-defined. But if we are going to lead truly generous lives--lives that aren't defined by our things, then we need to be ready for some messiness.
Sometimes we need to give more than people need to receive. Part of leading a generous life where you aren't defined by your things is being able to give "above and beyond." It keeps you honest. It also reminds you that you are giving a gift and not engaging in a transaction. Transactional giving is where you give expecting something in return--a thank you, or repayment, or perhaps for the person receiving your gift to use it wisely and change their life.
If there are strings attached to your giving, then it's not truly a gift, it's a transaction. Practice giving more than is needed, so that you'll cut the ties to your stuff that keep you from following Jesus more fully.
Sometimes people reject your gifts. I read a story in the book "I Like Giving" about a woman who wanted to give her friend who had been battling cancer the gift of a cruise for the two of them. The woman's husband was embarrassed by the gift and the lady told her friend that she could not go. It devastated her, but that's part of the messiness of living generously.
I want to show you a video about a couple who practiced giving generously, even when it meant giving more than was needed--and it was a sacrifice for them to do so.
I Like Car from ILikeGiving.com on Vimeo.
Let me ask you, when the couple bought a new car for Katherine did that surprise you? What do you take from that?
The Rich Young Ruler teaches a valuable lesson. When you are defined by your things, you let them go far less easily. And they can become the very things that keep you from being close to God. The saddest part of that whole story is summed up in two sentences: Jesus looked upon the young man and loved him, and the young man went away sorrowful because he had great possessions.
When you aren't defined by your possessions, you can let go of them more easily, you can use them more readily as a blessing to others, you can learn what it means to live generously.
When you realize that what you have doesn't define who you are, you can be free.