Motivations for Giving
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
It’s funny, but every year about this time when parishes are wrapping up their pledging season, readings like the ones we just heard appear in our lectionary. What a coincidence!
The story is known as The Widow’s Mite. Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, and watching as people made their contributions to the treasury. Wealthy people made a show of giving large sums of money, which, Jesus noted, was actually a pittance, in comparison to their resources. A poor widow, by contrast, gave everything she had. Jesus pointed to her and said that of the two, she was the generous one, for generosity is defined by the proportion of our income that we give away, not the amount.
But the story does more than underscore the biblical teaching of proportional giving. It goes deeper, as Jesus always does. He moves us from the external action - giving money - to the internal condition of the heart. Jesus looks within and asks the penetrating question Why do people give? And we end up asking ourselves the same question: What is my real motivation for giving - for giving money, time, effort; for giving of myself?
To get at this question, Jesus speaks of the scribes, who wear fancy robes and strut around proudly in Jerusalem’s marketplace, who get the best seats at banquet halls and synagogues, and who make sure everyone knows how much money they give. They are motivated to give for the sake of appearances.
But meanwhile, Jesus says, things are rotten inside. For the scribes were part of the Temple system that taxed the poor into indebtedness, and then when they couldn’t pay, took away their ancestral land and home. Jesus said “They devour widows’ houses.”
The closest modern parallel to these guys would be the insurance company executives and investment bankers who handed out junk mortgages leading up to the 2008 recession. When families were put out on the streets, they continued to wear expensive suits and strut around proudly in Manhattan’s marketplace, and to sit in the best seats at charity balls.
Some of them are pious pillars of their community, philanthropists, and Jesus says they are the worst kind. For they make a show of giving away a proportionally small amount of their fortune that they get from exploiting others, and then swell with pride as their name is placed on the wing of a hospital. “Beware of them,” Jesus says, for “they devour widows’ houses..They will have the greater condemnation.”
So in this story, Jesus addresses the motivation of giving for the sake of appearances. But there is another self-serving motivation for giving that may hit a little closer to home for all of us: transactional giving.
Transactional giving takes many forms, but they’re all rooted in the belief that If I give this, then I will get that. Some put their faith in the prosperity gospel, where the transaction goes like this: If make an investment of sacrificial giving, then I will get a 10-fold return on my investment. Others think that their charity will purchase absolution for the guilt they feel for being privileged in a poor world. Or maybe it’s just duty: if I do what God requires, if I do the right thing, then I will gain God’s favor, and I will see myself as a good person. And for some in parish life, the transaction is payment for services consumed: If I pay my pledge, I will get Sunday worship, programs for children, a group to belong to.
So if we don’t give for the sake of appearances, and we don’t give transactionally, why give?
I’d like to suggest that we give as a way of strengthening the human community. We give money, time, and effort - we give of ourselves - because it creates better connections between people, because it makes the human family healthier, happier. And that benefits everyone, including us.
Recently I spent a week at a meditation center north of San Francisco doing a contemplative prayer retreat. In meditation or contemplative prayer, we abandon words, sit in the presence of God, and allow ourselves to just be. What emerges from this prayerful being - and every religious tradition tells us this - is the experience of oneness not only with God, but with all people, with all creation. It’s a natural outcome.
As some 50 of us sat in silence together, as we settled down and stopped all our feverish doing and talking, we shared the same space, even the same breath. It was intimate, and very real. There we were: many people, but one sacred life. Many spirits, but one Spirit uniting us all. Many members, but one body.
In this environment, kindness is natural, because we know that we’re all in this together. There’s a heightened sensitivity to one another; we’re like family or friends, even though we might never speak. We’re attuned, even as we stand silently in line for a meal, as we pass one another on a walkway.
And this sense of unity goes beyond people, into the environment. Walking outside smelling the eucalyptus and the redwoods, feeling the damp fog, taking in the salt air of the nearby ocean, I was slowed down enough to know, in that moment, that there is no separation between “me” and “the world.” I wasn’t taking a walk “out in nature.” I am a part of nature; it is a part of me.
This isn’t just a fuzzy emotional or spiritual intuition. It is a scientific and social fact. People and objects seem like separate things, but we’re all made up of the same whirling subatomic particles. We’re all made of energy, just arranged in different forms. And where “I” end and “you” or a “tree” begin, physically, emotionally, is an overlapping area. We blur, and we affect one another.
Environmentally, interdependence has become painfully obvious. Introduce enough carbons into the atmosphere and you change the weather; Hurricane Sandy arises and harms millions of people. But positively speaking, we also know that an ecosystem is actually a boundless, interdependent organism, each part of it maintaining the life of other parts. Earth, water, insects, animals, plants, atmosphere - all one breathing and self-sustaining system.
This is also true of social and economic systems. A father dies and suddenly the whole family, like an out-of-balance hanging mobile, needs to find a new equilibrium. A new group of immigrants, with all their cultural habits and traditions, changes the city into which they enter. The greed of unregulated capitalists renders millions of people unemployed worldwide.
So seeing our unity with one another and our environment is not just wishful thinking, or the spiritual imagination at work. Creation is a vast, fragile, and beautiful web of being, one life form. Some call this life form Gaia, after the ancient Greek goddess who is a kind of Mother Earth. I think of creation as God’s body, all of it animated by the Creator’s Spirit.
You may be wondering right about now why I’ve gone off on this cosmic tangent of contemplative unity. But it’s not a tangent. It is an understanding of reality that makes it possible to give of our time, our money, our best efforts in a healthy way - not for appearances or as a transaction - but because by giving, we strengthen the web of being, of which we are a part.
So today, as we offer our pledges that will sustain this community through the coming year, we affirm our place in the web of being, here in this corner of creation. Your money provides worship for seekers and pays the salaries of those who counsel the troubled. Your time puts food on the tables of elderly widows who live on meager fixed incomes. Your generosity provides a safe sacred place for those who have been condemned in other churches.
Everything we do, for better or worse, has an impact on the whole. So it isn’t too grand to say that by giving, we participate in God’s own work of redeeming creation. Who wouldn’t be motivated by that?