Practicing Christian generosity
By Gary G. Hoag
If you like stories, this article is for you. But don’t let the title fool you. These are not tall tales. They are true.
The source of the first one is Scripture. The second one dates back to the beginning of the Mennonite Brethren movement. And the third one, well, you will know that person. What weaves this cast of characters together? They are all rich.
Rich person #1
The first rich person is most commonly known as “the rich young ruler.” In Mark 10:17-31 he is described as merely “a man.” Though you may know the story, read it afresh today.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Why recount this story? I think it is one of the most misunderstood passages in Scripture. For about 18 centuries, scholars almost unanimously have taught that the rich man missed the kingdom on account of his riches. Interestingly, the text does not say that.
Just prior to this time, around the year A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria looked at this text in his treatise: “Who is the Rich Man Who Will be Saved?” He urged: “Do not judge who is worthy and unworthy” because you may be mistaken and called readers to “accommodate rather than criticize” the rich man. If Jesus looked at him and loved him, we should not be so quick to condemn the guy.
Consider next the response of the rich man after Jesus invites him to go, sell, give, come and follow. I think you may see what Clement saw and what I recently discovered. It reads: “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Commentators, I believe, have mistaken his sadness as rejection.
This Greek word for “sad” is found two other times in the book of Mark. Sad first appears in Mark 6:26 when Herodias danced before Herod. In appreciation he offers her any wish up to half his kingdom. Her wish was the head of John the Baptist. What was Herod’s response in 6:26? He was sad. Same root word. Did he do what he said he would do? Unfortunately, yes.
The other occurrence of this word is found in Mark 14:32-34 when in Gethsemane Jesus asks his disciples to wait while he prays. Jesus was “overwhelmed with sorrow.” He was really sad. Same root word. But even with the hard road ahead of him, did he go to the cross for us? Thankfully, yes!
Now let’s return to Mark 10:21-23. The text says the rich young ruler’s response to Jesus invitation to go, sell, give, come and follow was that “he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” I think he left sad not because he rejected the gospel, but because he knew he had work to do. Hard work. This notion is affirmed by Jesus’ response: “How hard it will be…”
Jesus does not condemn the rich man. He’s sympathetic. He knows how hard it is for those who have riches to lay them aside because he laid aside the riches of heaven to come to earth to give his life for us.
Rich Person #2
Menno Simons was born in the Netherlands in humble circumstances in 1496. In 1524, he became a Catholic priest and served in that capacity for 12 years. Ironically, in that era priests knew a lot about church traditions but almost nothing about the Bible.
So what made him rich? When wrestling with spiritual questions during the Reformation, Menno studied the Scriptures. This made him rich, spiritually rich.
Menno’s story is inspirational because he found true wealth in a time when people were spiritual bankrupt. And, rather than hoard his heavenly riches he shared them freely regardless of the personal or financial cost.
In his book, 17 Injunctions, Menno writes, "True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it, it binds up that which is wounded, it has become all things to all people."
Despite intense religious persecution, Menno dedicated his life to following the teachings of Jesus as recorded in Scripture and encouraged others to do the same. Many joined him and became known as the Mennonites.
Rich Person #3
You and I represent the third rich person. We are rich.
Statistics show that if you make $25,000 a year, your salary ranks in the 90th percentile of the richest people in the world. If you make $50,000 a year you are in the 99th percentile. See how your salary ranks compared to the rest of the world at www.globalrichlist.com. From a global perspective, you and I are financially rich.
We are spiritually rich too. We have what rich person #1 was seeking. We’ve got Jesus. And, we are not alone in following him. Thanks to rich person #2 we are a part of a spiritually rich Mennonite Brethren community of faith.
Blessed with both material and spiritual wealth, what should we do from here? Let’s revisit verse 21 one more time, and I think we’ll find a three-part answer: “Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’”
First, we need to remember Jesus sees us and loves us. This amazing truth is intended to provide us with the peace we long for but often miss because we make the mistake of seeking security in earthly treasures.
Second, I believe we need to get to work. To heed the command to “Go, sell everything and give to the poor,” is to let go of that stuff which can’t save us, give us security or satisfy us, and instead share it, like Menno, with broken and hurting people around us.
Third, to “come and follow” is simply an invitation from Jesus to practice Christian generosity. What’s this look like? I am not asking you to make a year-end gift to your church. I am asking you to join my family and me in being the gift.
Where can we start? My family has decided to stop storing up treasures on earth, and instead pour them into the needy around us in the name of Jesus. We ask God daily to fill our cups so we have enough to give to him, to meet our needs and to share with others following the Spirit’s leading.
It’s hard. It’s costing us everything, and we are not done because there are still so many things we hold on to. In this journey, we are thankful that Jesus is loving and gracious toward us.
Menno got it, and I tend to think the rich young man did too, because as some scholars have posited, I think the rich young man may have actually been Mark himself, the writer of the Gospel. How else would he have been able to testify about the love extended to him?
I can’t finish this tale of three rich people without you. My prayer is that you will join my family and me on the journey of practicing Christian generosity; in so doing, you will experience and share the love of Jesus like never before.
Gary Hoag attends Trailhead Church, a Mennonite Brethren church plant in Centennial, Colo, with his wife, Jenni, and two children, Sammy and Sophie. Hoag is completing his PhD in New Testament at Trinity College in Bristol, England. Hoag recently co-authored The Sower: Redefining the Ministry of Raising Kingdom Resources; contributed a chapter to Revolution in Generosity; and served as a content reviewer for the NIV Stewardship Study Bible. To read his daily meditations on Christian generosity visit: www.generositymonk.com.