My first of three weeks in Texas (with Karen’s family) was largely devoted to researching generosity in large cities (online and in texts), and some of the next two will be as well. That is, when we’re not swimming, eating fried catfish, napping, or looking for deer bones in the woods behind Memaw and Granddaddy’s house.
A fellow parent at my children’s school was telling me about her landlord, an older Italian woman, when she lived in Boston’s North End about twenty years ago.
“So she invited me in for lemonade one day and we had a nice chat. And then she said, ‘You know, I realize you’re just getting started in your career, and so I’m sorry about this but I’m afraid I’m going to have to raise the rent.’ So I thought for a minute and remembered the elderly couple below me and my roommate. They were on a fixed income and this would be really tough on them. I asked my landlord about this. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I’ve been worried about them, but I don’t know what else I can do.’ This man who lived below me was a fixture in our community; everyone knew him. He would even save my parking place by sitting in a chair out front, and nobody ever bothered him. He’d been very kind, you know? So I said to my landlord, ‘Why don’t you just add the difference in their rent to our new rent. We can cover it. We’ll just drink less beer.’”
Generosity is giving that which is most valuable. This holds true no matter what one’s worldview is. If giving away that value doesn’t affect the way we live, then it is not generosity. Yet through true generosity, authentic life change is possible, both in the giver and in the recipient.
In the Christian tradition, God establishes the pattern of human generosity with the consecration of the firstborn male among the Israelites (Cf. Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches). God says to Moses in Exodus 13:1, “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal.” Any mother or father knows that one’s firstborn child not only changes the parents’ lives but also places a unique identity and expectation on that child. Having been adopted as an infant, I recall the birth of my first son indelibly. It was the moment I first met a blood relative and the time when I had a legacy growing before my eyes. When we are asked to give this child to the Lord for whatever purpose the Lord deems appropriate – whether to serve as a missionary to the Auca Indians in Ecuador in the 1950s, or to lead a civil rights movement in the 1960s in America, or to bring him to a mountain in Moriah only to return alone as Abraham was commanded – is a daunting challenge. We also see the unwise consecration of firstborn children in the cases of Jephthah the Gileadite in Judges 11 and the king of Moab in 2 Kings 3. In each case, one a believer and one a foe of Israel, the man used his firstborn as a bargaining chip to ask God for military victory. In Exodus 13, God asks us to give over to him what is first and most valuable to be used for his purpose, not for our own purposes.
This exhortation – God’s requirement of consecrating the firstborn – and the examples of submission to or proper use of it (see Hannah and her son Samuel in 1 Samuel 1-2) point back to a Father who consecrated and gave his one and only Son to pay for our sins. God was not unwilling to do what he did not require us to do. To be certain, when we give what is most valuable – whether our own freedom or life, or that of our child – the result might be painful. But God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – knew full well what would be the result and did it nonetheless. For our sakes.
The impact on our side of the equation – that of the recipient – is of a restored relationship with God for those who would accept it and a promise of eternal life with him. It is also a world that is being renewed through God’s Spirit.
But who can imagine the impact of this act of generosity on the side of the Triune God? Who can begin to comprehend not only the loss of intimacy that Jesus Christ experienced when the Father brought his wrath upon him on the cross but also the grief of the Father and Holy Spirit at the death of the Son and his burial for three days? The Trinity had perfect communion for all time preceding that moment at Golgotha. Then God experienced such unimaginable pain and suffering – the breaking of his body and pouring out of his blood; the disintegration of God’s wholeness on the cross – that all we can do is to praise him for all eternity.
The beginning of this praise takes place here, on earth, in the daily act of generosity toward God and our neighbor.