Generosity for Rich and Poor (16th Pentecost, Proper 18B)
“Generosity for Rich and Poor”
16th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18B)
September 9, 2018
Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
“Those who are generous are blessed for they share their bread with the poor” (Prov 22:9)
How do we become generous? What does generosity mean? Some might think that in order to be generous, you need to be wealthy. I’ve heard American Christians say that you need to make as much money as you can in order to share more with others. Grow your personal wealth so that you can give to churches and charities. That sounds great. It would be nice if it always worked out that way, but the Scriptures have a more realistic view of human nature. God knows how people really act around money and power, and it usually isn’t selfless or altruistic.
The call of the prophet here is not simply to give to the poor, but to share with the poor. We don’t have to be rich, with lots of excess money to donate to various charities in order to be truly generous. To be generous in the Christian sense is more than becoming a benefactor or philanthropist. To be generous is to share what you have, no matter how much or how little it is. And we can practice generosity when we simply treat people well, regardless of their economic status or appearance. The point is that quality is better than quantity. Generous sharing is better than impersonally giving away your leftovers.
When we read Proverbs alongside James, we find that there are more warnings to the rich than encouragements to grow your personal wealth. Getting rich is strongly correlated with a decrease in generosity. Rich people can be generous, but it’s harder because wealth is just so tempting.
Statistics from the IRS in 2014 bear this out. They show that wealthier Americans give a smaller percentage of their income than poorer Americans (Frankel). That means that yes, richer people give more to charity overall, but proportionally, they tend to be less generous. This is something that the Bible predicts about human nature. The more we have, the more we convince ourselves that we need -- or better, the more we want to keep for ourselves. Like Jesus says, “it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom” (Matthew 19:24, CEB).
This is because when I have wealth, I tend to think first about all the things I want. My vision becomes smaller and more self-centered. It becomes easier to forget about the needs or desires of others. It’s easier to forget that God loves all people equally.
This brings us back to Proverbs: “The rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”
God created all things and called everything good. That means that God created and loves every single person you have ever met or encountered. Poor and rich, black and white, woman or man, gay and straight -- God loves them all alike.
This is a foundational message that we’ve probably all heard a million times, but it bears repeating. God loves everyone we have ever met, even if we dislike, ignore, or hate them. This is especially true of those who are poor, unkempt, and otherwise distasteful because of their poverty or suffering.
The trouble is, whether we like to admit it or not, all of us are shaped by cultures that are biased toward the rich and against the poor. James wrote his example to a church nearly 2000 years ago, but it could just as easily be written to any church in the 21st century.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4).
We all find it easier to treat rich people better than poor people. There is even a powerful lie in most cultures that claims that the rich are morally superior and thus deserve their wealth. The other half of the lie is that the poor are morally inferior; they lie and cheat and steal and shouldn’t be trusted; they did something wrong to be in the position they’re in. But in our best moments we know that life isn’t perfectly fair and balanced. People don’t always get what they deserve. Some things are just luck of the draw when it comes to genes, nationality, race, gender, or your family’s wealth, class, and status.
“The rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”
God doesn’t show favoritism the way we show it. God definitely doesn’t help those who help themselves and ignore the needs of others. If God does play favorites, God actually favors the poor and beaten down. Again, James writes, “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?" (2:5).
God loves all of us, but God especially cares for those whose lives are hard. God loves the poor and oppressed and promises to vindicate them for all their suffering in the life to come. In fact, God showed love to the whole world by sending the Word of God, the Son Jesus Christ, to become a poor human being. This poor man who had nowhere to lay his head was eventually arrested, beaten, tortured, and executed on the Cross. But God vindicated him by raising Jesus from the dead as a promise to the world that God will ultimately defeat sin, death, and poverty (that is, inequity).
That should serve as a warning to us, who are mostly middle class. While there are plenty of people who are richer than us, a lot are worse off. We can’t take anything for granted. God calls us to radical generosity: “The generous are blessed because they share their bread with the poor.” This is one of the many reasons why our mission theme at St. Matthew’s is Life Around the Table. Not only does it describe us in our best moments (we are a very generous church), but it also points to what we aspire to be. There is always room for growth and improvement. So let us continue walking in love and finding new and old ways to be generous to our neighbors, rich and poor, near and far. Amen.
Frankel, Matthew. “The Average American’s Charitable Donations: How Do You Compare?” The Motley Fool. Published 27 November 2016. https://www.fool.com/retirement/2016/11/27/the-average-americans-charitable-donations-how-do.aspx
Gafney, Wil. “Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23.” Working Preacher. Published 9 September 2012. Accessed 6 September 2018. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1361.