It is a well-known fact that people start to tense up when the Church begins teaching about that most sacred thing we keep in our pants. I speak, of course, of our wallets.
And not, by the way, just us laypeople. Almost every priest I have ever known absolutely dreads having to discuss money. And that makes their job pretty rough since Jesus speaks more about money than about any other subject. He not only has plenty to say about the rich and the poor, but he constantly uses money to illustrate his parables. They are chock full of people being paid, or owing debts, or being forgiven debts, or investing, or blowing, or hiding money. He himself has no money as a rule (which is why he has to borrow a coin to talk about rendering to Caesar) and he radiates a distrust and disapproval of having to touch the stuff more than you might have to handle uranium 235, except for the same purpose: to get rid of it for some useful purpose while always being conscious that it might blow up in your face if you start to worship it. Mammon is, emphatically for Jesus, a rival god. Almost his whole counsel regarding money is “Be as generous as you can be with it, since the only real use for it is helping you get to heaven.”
And yet, of course, for all sorts of practical and sensible reasons, we are very leery of that advice. Why? There is a famous story about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that nicely illustrates the dilemma facing Christians whenever the question of generosity—and particularly generosity toward the poor arises. The two great writers were on a walking tour of England once and happened on a beggar. Lewis, as was his custom, reached into his pocket and gave the man what shillings he had. As they walked on, Tolkien frowned and said, “He’s just going to spend it on drink, you know.” To which Lewis replied, “I was just going to spend it on drink.”
It is strange to speak of the “problem of generosity”. Particularly when the Christian tradition is so clear in pronouncing a blessing on those who are generous. Like the Jewish tradition from which it springs, the Christian tradition commends liberality in giving. It sings Psalm 37:25-26:
“I have been young, and now am old;
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread.
He is ever giving liberally and lending,
and his children become a blessing.”
Likewise, the apostle Paul says succinctly, “The Lord loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). And in this, he is simply following his Master who urges us, “Give, and it will be given to you; 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” (Luke 6:38).
In short, the Christian tradition commends not just generosity, but almost a crazy generosity.
Which is, of course, the problem since reality quickly impinges on all that with various hard facts. One is that most of us don’t have all that much money and what we have we feel we need for food and shelter and taxes and the kid’s braces and the new transmission and the college fund and retirement and so forth. What if it’s not there when we need it? We’re not greedy. It’s not going to pay the servants fanning us with ostrich feathers and popping grapes in our mouths.
And in addition to the skimpy supply there is the matter of demand: who are these people asking for our hard-earned money? How do we know we aren’t just enabling somebody’s drug habit? What about people’s need to learn thrift and hard work and not going around looking for a handout? What should we think when the state gets involved?
As with sex, one place to not start is with the assumption that your first natural impulse is the right one. Just as lust is one of the seven deadly sins while chastity is a learned habit, so greed is also one of the seven deadly sins and generosity is a learned habit. This means that left to our untutored fallen nature, the odds are extremely good that we will choose to refuse Christian generosity if we could just as we’d choose lust if we could. Our natural impulse is to hoard our stuff as much as we can just as our natural impulse is to indulge our sexual appetite as often as we can. That’s life outside the garden.
So what do we do? Well one useful rule of thumb is to tithe: five percent to the Church, five percent to some other charity. However, the thing to bear in mind is that this is simply a baseline. In short, don’t go below it, but feel free to go as far above it as you like. The idea is that you are using your resources to give as much life and love as you can, not that you are fulfilling a minimum daily adult requirement of eating spinach. “Generosity” is related to words like “generate” and “generation”. It speaks of a joyful willingness to create the conditions for life and love and human flourishing.
The world hates all that. So it tells us various lies or edits the Bible to make it more “sensible”. One beloved verse the world cherishes (out of context) almost as much as it loves “Judge not” (out of context) is Paul’s remark, “If any one will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The problem is that this is taken from Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians, not Paul’s Second Letter to the Americans. It is not intended as a social program, but as a directive to those within the Church, not to those outside it. His point was “Don’t sit there on your duffs waiting for Jesus to return, but get busy (so that you will have something to be generous with).”
So all those comforting things we tell ourselves about not giving to the “undeserving”? Yeah, here’s the thing: Jesus himself is astonishingly profligate and (by our standards) even reckless in his counsels on generosity toward those outside the Church. Just as he tells us to be generous in mercy beyond anything our cautious fallen nature is uncomfortable with (commanding us to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven times) so he urges us toward a generosity with our worldly wealth that scares us: “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42). Note that there are no qualifications on that whatsoever. Nothing about the “deserving poor” or checking on their work history. Nothing about expectation of payback. Indeed, he specifically puts a premium on not getting payback:
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:12-14)
So does that mean you should try to be prepared for anybody who asks? Well, yeah. Doesn’t mean it has to be money you give. You can, for instance, give food to a homeless guy. You can give yourself, listening for a few minutes. You can give to people who have the resources and knowledge of the community to help them. You can be generous with your time or talent if you don’t have a lot of dough. You can (and this is often overlooked) be a cheerful giver even when you pay your taxes (since the state’s legitimate job is, in part, looking out for the common good of the poor and homeless).
There is, in the end, no formula for generosity. It is an attitude of heart rather than a legal prescription.