Does generosity change everything?
A long time ago, Paul was a cynic. I supposed even that cynic is not even the right word. He was a zealot—against Christians. He hated them. In fact, he went about killing them. He organized mobs to round up Christians and to get them killed.
But that all changed one day on the road to Damascus as we he was on the way to a mob scene in the making. I’ll give more on that later.
After Paul professed his faith in Jesus everything changed. He went from city to city and he talked about Jesus. Every city he went into he’d march straight into the square or the synagogue, and he’d engage people about this Jesus.
One of those cities was Corinth. This city-state was located at the southern tip of Greece. Located on an isthmus, it was a bustling center for trade. As a result of its pivotal location, people flowed in and out of the city, and with that flow a steady exchange of ideas, theories and beliefs.
In it’s early roots, Corinth was a center for the worship of Greek gods: Aphrodite, Apollo, Demeter and others. When Paul visited the city in 51 and 52 AD, many responded to his message of a single god, who loved and cared for his people yet called for singular obedience. This novel message differed strongly from the polytheistic culture, and the church in Corinth thrived.
But the Christian life is always lived out in the context of the former way of life and culture. How would Paul’s message change a culture steeped in mythology, philosophy, superstition and outright intellectual pride?
That message was dropped into a Greek culture that provided itself on independent and wide-ranging open thought. In other words, everything could be embraced.
Who were the Corinthians?
These people had a long history. Their city was old and established. As a city of trade, they had wealth. There was no doubt a certain pride, which came with the statement, “I come from Corinth.” They were used to people coming into their city and sharing ideas. Accordingly, they were used to filtering through ideas and taking sides.
In the same way they were used to trying on new ideas, they were also used to trying out new lifestyles. Experience was king. As a result, when Paul came with the compelling message of a one true god who entered into covenantal love with those who obeyed and followed, they were intrigued. In fact, some quickly followed.
But just as they’d done in the past, they tended to pick sides. Some picked Paul. Some picked other Christian teachers. It was not long before they were a church of factions—following leaders of their liking, and taking positions on everything related to the church, including lifestyles, sex, service, and spiritual gifts.
They were a pot boiling over. They were a mess. In their desperation, they wrote Paul a letter and asked him to give them some authoritative view on how to clean up their mess. That’s why Paul wrote his letter to them.
What could he say that would possibly bring them together?
Generosity changes everything
This fledgling church was filled with division. How could they become united again? Who is crazy enough to think that generosity could make a difference, let alone change everything?
To stem the tide of division, the church wrote Paul asking for his teaching on various subjects of dispute. Paul’s reply addressed those areas, but it also added a new request. In I Corinthians 16, Paul made an appeal:
On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.
He asked them to give. He wanted the church in Corinth to store up something for the church in Jerusalem, which was facing persecution and famine.
Now this may seem puzzling: in the midst of all this division, Paul asked them to give. Why?
On the one hand, you might think this request for funds irked the Corinthians. They might have even been offended. In our culture today, Paul quite likely would not be invited back to speak at our churches for such a brazen request.
To be fair, Paul made this same request for support from other churches he visited. He wanted each church to give to other churches. It’s important to note that in church culture of that day, the request for giving was not out of the ordinary. In fact, in the Jewish culture, it was expected that people would give 10 percent of their income to support the priests, another 10 percent to support the temple and still another 10 percent every third year to support the poor.
If you are adding it all up, that is 23 percent every year. These tithes were on top of other offerings that a Jewish family might make at the time of harvest, the gathering of the harvest and other such feasts. Jewish families were used to giving.
But for the Corinthians, giving wasn’t an intrinsic part of their culture. Paul knew that when the church wrote about division, something much bigger was going on. They lacked generosity, which would help them get their minds off of their problems and on their Creator God, the Life-Giver and the unifier of all division.
By encouraging the church to give, Paul shifted their self-centered focus to the needs of others. Giving is a great salve in that way. It can break down the walls of division because it forces us to focus upon the needs of others instead of our own needs.
Are you in a divided church? Find something to give to; find someone else other than yourself to serve. Try it, and like Paul, you’ll find that generosity does in fact change everything.
Generosity at the heart of the gospel
How does generosity change everything?
Paul experienced it for himself.
You see, Paul was a zealot. He was a man fully committed to his cause. He killed Christians freely. He chased them down. He stoned them. He got mobs organized, and you can imagine Christians being dragged from their homes to face mob justice. In Paul’s dreams in the quiet of the night, I suspect that he woke with those images of blood still on his hands. It was unshakable. How could he ever forgive himself?
But those images of blood I suspect were gradually replaced by a more powerful image. On the road to Damascus, when he was fully driven to kill, generosity changed everything. A bright light halted him, and the voice of Jesus called out to him: “It’s me, Jesus, and I love you.”
It must have been maddening to think that Jesus could ever be so generous as to love a murderer like Paul. In his own mind, Paul must have wondered how it could be. Yet even as Paul raised those questions, Jesus would point Paul to a simple truth.
Not many years before, Jesus had faced a similar road. Soldiers had come with swords. A mob had gathered. They had breathed lies, and justice was twisted to their own ends. It would have been easy for Jesus to call down his own revenge with a single word. In fact, in the garden, Jesus pondered if there was another way—some way, any way to avoid the upcoming agony.
In the end, there was not. Jesus walked the long road, bearing a cross, stripes on his back, blood freely flowing … and he gave his life.
His gift—well, it changed everything. It united a fledgling church. It ignited a handful of fisherman and tradesmen to speak freely and boldly and ultimately give their lives. His gift still brings people together in love. His gift is still the motivation for people to leave homes and family to share with those who have never heard.
The generosity of Jesus changes everything.
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Published April 26, 2016