John the Baptist comes announcing that God is about to do a new thing in the world. He tells his followers to make themselves ready for God’s coming into history: “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.” And they ask him a very important and understandable question: “What should we do?”
Ok, Prophet, if we believe you that God is coming to bring his Kingdom what should we do? If the Messiah is coming to establish his rule, what do we need to do to make ready? Do we read Torah? Do we move to a desert commune? Do we pick up arms and ready to resist our Roman oppressors? What are the people of God, the truly repentant, the real believers, the Kingdom people to DO?”
(Before I give you the answer that you already know, pause here for a bit…what would we be expecting John to say to us if we asked that question in our context? “So, Prophet, what would you have us do? Should we read the Bible? Go to church? Oppose Abortion or same-sex marriage? Vote differently? Recycle? What are the repentant to do? “
John’s answer must have been unexpected, yes, astonishing…
"If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry…“Collect no more taxes than the government requires…Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.”
Be generous, Be honest. Be content. And in every case, he addressed the pockets, not the hearts. The wallet, not the will. A person’s stuff, not their soul.
Boy, that wouldn’t preach well today. But look how incredibly practical, how genuinely down-to-earth is the Prophet: If you want to get prepared for the Kingdom, loosen your grip on the things of this world.
As I have gone through this series on astonishing generosity, I have become keenly aware that the words trigger a deep longing while almost simultaneously, a firm resistance. We truly WANT to be people of astonishing generosity, but are so hesitant to actually take the necessary steps to do what is necessary to actually become generous.
Generosity is not natural to us. From moment when as a toddler our first declarative sentence is “Mine!” we are naturally selfish, insecure and clinging to whatever we can hang on to. Parents have to teach their children to share their toys. Mark Twain even said that the last thing converted in a man is his wallet. Generosity, even run-of-the-mill (not to mention “astonishing”) generosity doesn’t come easy.
So what, then shall we do? Let me give you a couple of humble suggestions:
- Hang out with truly generous people. See if it will rub off on you. A couple of weeks ago someone asked my wife, “What is your favorite thing to do that doesn’t cost money?” She answered, laughing, “Drink wine with my cousin Mike!” Mike is one of the truly generous people I know. He almost always picks up the check, he shares things easily, even lavishly. And if we go to his house for dinner, he always brings out one of his best bottles of wine. Being around Mike makes me want to be more like him.
- Practice being generous. Tip big when you go out to dinner. Buy every box of Girl Scout cookies some sweet little girl brings to your house and then give them away to your neighbors. Buy a struggling young man a new suit or offer to pay the rent for someone who needs a helping hand. And then thank them. Tell them that you are doing it for yourself and that they are doing you a favor. Then find something that you are hanging on to a little too tight and just give it to someone. Give away all your Yugio cards, or your Reyn Spooner shirt collection, or whatever. Empty your wallet in the offering plate just for the experience of doing so. Write the biggest check you can ever imagine to some work of God in the world and watch how there is still food on your table. And don’t ask for any recognition for it, because this is helping you. Reorganize your finances so that the first tenth of every bit of income that comes in your door goes to the work of God. I mean really tithe. Look at it as a whole lot better deal than the rich young ruler got.
Many of us start to get really nervous when we read stuff like this. We start wondering whether we’ll really be okay if we truly loosen our grip on all we hang on to. Jesus is not interested in making us poor, he just wants us to be devoted. He just wants nothing to hinder us from following him. And he assures us that no matter what we give away for his sake, we will receive more than we ever imagined.