The Messenger - Week 3: "Generosity"
Today we're going to be continuing the sermon series, "The Messenger," a study in the book of Malachi. This series is preparing us for the coming season of Advent
Today we're going to be focusing on one of the many prophetic words that the prophet Malachi offered to the people of Israel. And in this one, the prophet really doesn't pull any punches.
He tells the people that they have been robbing God by their lack of generosity. And, not surprisingly, they wonder how that could possibly be...
More on that in a bit.
When I was a kid, I was taught that you were supposed to tithe back to God 10% of all the money you earned. So, if I earned a dollar, I owed God ten cents.
There was a time when I would get really excited about giving my tithe. I would drop my coins into the offering plate, slowly... letting them hit and make a lot of noise.
But the older I got, I started thinking to myself: "10% seems like a lot. I mean, God really doesn't need my measly 10%. Besides, I don't really want to give my money to a church. I would rather give that to my favorite charity: Me."
And here's the thing---even when I came back to church, and started coming around a bit, and realized that I needed to start being a bit more generous, I wanted to control it. I wanted to make sure that my money went to things that I felt good about.
And I did this for years.
And I believed that I was being generous--giving my 10%.
With the other 90% firmly under my control.
We were created in the image of God--a God who is inherently generous.
It is out of God's inherent generosity that all the attributes of God flow out toward you and I. God's mercy, love, creativity, redemption all come out of the boundless generosity of God. And you and I are created in God's image with God's DNA embedded within us. So it stands to reason that you and I should inherently be generous, too.
So why aren't we?
I mean, sometimes we are generous. We have generous moments. But how many of us can truly say that we are generous with all aspects of our life--with our time, our talent, our treasure?
How many of us treat all that we have as belonging to God?
The prophet Malachi offers us a glimpse into the way that God views all of this:
As we'll soon discover, this is a passage of Scripture that requires some explanation. Let's read it together:
8 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.
First things first, we need to acknowledge that this prophetic passage was written with a particular audience in a particular moment in history.
And the audience for the prophet Malachi is the people of Israel--the people of God, the chosen ones. At this writing, they have had a checkered past when it came to living into the hope of their relationship with God. They have shattered their end of the bargain when it comes to the covenant that God made with them.
What you see here in Malachi 3 is the other side of the covenantal language.
God is saying to them, "You want to know why things haven't been good for you? You broke our covenant, and that comes with a curse--it's kind of built in, you see. I wanted good things for you, the very best. But you chose otherwise, and now you've been living with the consequences of our broken relationship. I wanted you to choose generosity and abundant life, and you chose scarcity and selfishness."
God mentions tithing here.
The word "tithe" is connected to the word "tenth." To tithe means to give ten percent. The word tithing appears 40 times in the Bible, 32 times in the Old Testament and 8 in the New Testament. Out of the moments when it appears in the New Testament only 3 of those moments come from the mouth of Jesus, and only in the Gospel of Luke.
In one of those moments in Luke chapter 11 Jesus chides the Pharisees for tithing everything they had as a show of piety--even the herbs from their garden--and then flat out ignoring the poor.
So, this raises some questions for us.
Does this passage in Malachi still apply to us?
Why do so many Christians seem to think it's important, and why do so many churches emphasize it?
And is it really working? Recent statistics indicate that the average church-goer in America gives less than 3% of their annual income to their church, and not much more to other charities.
But when we step outside of our narrow points of view, our desire to hold on to our stuff, and make sure that we have enough---we discover some amazing things about generosity.
We discover the truth from Malachi 3--that living generously as God would have you live leads to abundant life.
Which brings me to some psychologists--Dunn & Norton, to be precise.
Dunn & Norton, that sounds like a hipster shoe company doesn't it?
Actually Dunn and Norton did some of the most definitive work in history when it comes to understanding the science of generosity. The initial work that Dunn and Norton did centered around what we'll refer to as a happiness index--or a way of fairly and equitably measuring people's happiness.
Once they were able to do this, they were then able to see what effect "prosocial" giving had on the happiness index of people who gave money to other people or to a worthy cause.
As it turns out, giving to others made people happier (which isn't surprising), but it also had a positive physiological and psychological effect on people as well. In other words it not only made them happier to give to others, it made them healthier.
Dunn and Norton performed the same research in Uganda--one of the poorest countries in Africa. Guess what? They got the same results. Apparently, it doesn't matter how poor you are, it makes you feel better and perhaps even live longer to be generous.
Dunn and Norton's conclusion at the end of everything was simply this:
It's as if "we were created to give."
So we know this... it's part of who we are. But just like in most areas of our life, we tend to deny our true identity in God and decide that we can go our own way on our own terms. And sometimes that means wrapping everything in the shroud of religion to make it appear better than it really is.
Jesus always saw right through this.
In Luke 11:42 he declares this: 42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
Jesus busts on these guys not for tithing--although he does uncover just how crazy these guys were about their tithing rules. He busts on them for being so meticulous about tithing their ten percent, but neglecting justice and love with the remaining ninety percent.
Which makes me wonder if the question that Jesus was really asking was this: "Is only 10% of your stuff God's, and the rest yours? Is that what you're saying to me? Because if that's what you're saying, then I would have to say that you aren't really that generous."
You see, Jesus taught by his words and his deeds, by his life, by his death by his resurrection---that when you are generous it changes everything. Literally. Everything. Because that's what Jesus did through his own generosity. He changed everything for you, for me, for all of Creation.
So how in tune with the needs of others are we really? Are we really listening? Because if we aren't then everything we say we believe is kind of pointless. You can be the biggest stickler for the rules and regulation of what you believe to be Christian.... You can tithe your ten percent every week, or month, or whatever...
And you can miss the whole point.
Because the question at the heart of Jesus indictment of the Pharisees comes back to haunt us if we let it: "Is only ten percent of your stuff God's, and the rest yours?" Here's something I imagine you will never hear from another pastor as long as you live, although I wish you would: If tithing is keeping you from seeing all of what you have been blessed with as God's---stop it.
You heard me. If you are giving your ten percent, and that's it. If you think that Malachi 3:8-10 is all about keeping rules, and that there is going to be a return on your investment. Then stop tithing.
Surprised to hear a pastor say that? I'm actually surprised I said it.
Here's the thing. What Malachi 3:8-10 is about really is trust--as in do I trust God with my stuff, with my money, with my possessions, with all that I have? When you trust God completely, when you realize that ALL you have is from God then you won't settle for a measly ten percent--ever again. You will be willing to give whatever is needed, whatever is necessary, whatever you are called to give in order to change the world.
And you will never see the world the same again. Ever. Suddenly, the world will become for you a place full of possibilities--possibilities for you to be generous, to sow seeds of love so that one day you'll see a harvest of such abundance, you'll never know how to measure it.
Because when you begin to give generously, it changes everything. You. Us. The World. Everything.