Continuing our Lent series on 'Holy Habits', our Rector, Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, shares her reflection on giving:
In the Gospel of John (2:13-25), Jesus confronts a commercial mindset that sees the temple primarily as a costly and valuable thing – its been under construction for 46 years – and as an opportunity for money making enterprise. He also confronts a purity mindset, that sees only certain things as holy enough for God – that’s the basis and rationale for the money changers (changing profane secular money into temple currency) and the sellers of sheep and cattle (the need to purchase sacrifices certified as blemish-free). He replaces these with his own self – profane (born of a woman, getting his hands dirty), accessible, value-less compared to the temple – he’s considered dispensable by the empire, just a man who can die for the greater good of peace. Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection reveal that the economy of God sees total value in the ordinary, the everyday, the human, the lowly, the dirty. In God’s economy things, and more especially people, aren’t valued in comparison with each other, higher or lower, but are just all of infinite value. This is the context in which our discussion of Christian giving as a holy habit needs to sit. Nobody is valued more or less than someone else because of whether they can or do give more or less.
Giving as a Christian discipline is not primarily about the needs of the church. Hard to hear when we also are asking for money because we could do with it to keep going, but giving as a Christian is about our attitude to money, rather than God’s need for it. God doesn’t need our money, just as in Micah and Isaiah the prophet rails that God doesn’t need sacrifices and burnt offerings. We give because we want to, out of gratitude for what God has done for us, and because giving changes our attitude to our money.
In the ten commandments, there is no commandment to give 10% to God. But there is a commandment not to covet what we haven’t got. Our ATTITUDE to money and consumer goods is so important it is there in the commandments.
Our attitude to money tends to be quite emotional. Money often represents security – our self-worth – our value to society as consumers and generators of wealth – it represents leisure, or safety, freedom from fear or from boredom or from dependency. Jesus’ attitude to money was one of the most revolutionary things he taught – see the story of him being asked about paying the temple tax, and taking the coin. He asked whose picture was on it, and then shrugged, and said ‘Well, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’. He treated that coin as just a bit of metal with a picture stamped on it, when to his audience it would have been not just all the things that money means to us today – security, safety, value, food, warmth, luxury – but also was a symbol of a hated oppression, a foreign government. Perhaps in these times of Brexit, we can get a slight sense of the emotion the whole debate about the coinage would have generated, from the emotional charge attached to things like the colour of our passport, and the symbolism of sterling rather than euros being our currency? That coin meant all sorts of highly charged things to the people who were asking Jesus about it, but to him it was just a bit of metal with a picture stamped on it. What would it take for us to treat money as just metal or just bits of paper with pictures on them?
The psychology of our giving may be that we feel more committed to things you’ve spent lots on. This can be abused by churches (as in the temple episode!) but can also be something we can use – to what do we want to be committed? If I put my money where my mouth is, science tells us we will actually be/feel more committed! Sometimes we think it’s the really committed people who give to the church – or we will give if and when we feel more committed. But the psychology suggests it actually works the other way around. So the question becomes, how committed do you want to be? Might giving less than we could be a way of putting limits around our commitment? Instead of being manipulated, knowing this we can choose what we want to be committed to and do something about it. That’s one reason why giving is a holy habit, and Lent a good time to cultivate it – it’s a time to decide what we think is important, and choose to prioritise it.
People often say ‘we give in other ways than money’ - our time and talents. True, but this is about your attitude to your money. What does it say about your values if you are prepared to give God your time and your talents, but not your treasure? Do you undervalue yourself? Do you overvalue money? Why NOT give money as well? Money as a medium of exchange – time/talents/goods in transferable format. Why do we think of it differently?
How do we think of it differently? Justin Welby has said: ‘my bank statement is the document that most reveals my theology’. If where your treasure is there your heart is – as modern psychology agrees – look at your bank statement. What does it say about where your heart is? And we need to challenge the idea that family is the same…. it's true that we have a responsibility to, for example, look after ageing parents, but what does it say about our values if we prefer luxury holidays or a financial nest egg for our own children to a more just and equal society? Of course this challenges our most deeply held values – this is where Jesus is most challenging. That’s why the keen young man goes away despairing. So, for your homework – get out your bank statement and go through it looking at where your priorities, your treasure, your heart really is!
What about the concept of sacrificial giving - what does sacrificial mean? A guideline is the Old Testament guideline of 10% (equivalent to taxes nowadays – it would have provided a lot of infrastructure, the sort of thing provided by the welfare state now). Then there is the concept of first fruits – give to God first, enjoy what’s left, rather than giving to God when you see what’s left… but 10% is a very blunt instrument (for the well off, far more than 10% is appropriate as a much higher percentage is disposable). A guideline to self-assess whether what you are giving is sacrificial might be – if what you gave in a year was given back to you as a lump sum, would it be a nice bonus, a nice treat, or would it make a substantial difference to your lifestyle? Do you spend more on luxuries like holidays, or eating out, or home improvements, in a year, than you give to God?
What one thing has been new or challenging or struck you?
Where does this ‘bite’ for you as you try to follow Jesus today?
Listen to Miranda's reflection here: