It is a violent scene to be sure. I am talking about a 16th century woodcut by the Italian (Bolognese) artist Ugo da Carpi entitled “Hercules Chasing Avarice from the Temple of the Muses.”
In the woodcut we see Hercules, his face stern and all of the muscles in his body taut with tension. He is grasping a personified “Avarice” by the back of the neck. His right arm is upraised, holding a club, just about to strike Avarice a deadly blow. Sitting serenely around this scene of violence are the nine Muses, the goddesses of song, art, and creativity.
This scene may strike us as odd and as foreign, but there is, in fact, something very biblical (in principle) about what we are seeing here. “Avarice,” you see, comes from the Latin word avaritia and is defined as an “immoderate desire for wealth” or “excessive or insatiable desire or greed.” Hercules is therefore driving Avarice from the temple because greed inevitably destroys beauty and harmony. Greed is ugliness itself and it turns us into monsters.
St. Augustine writes in the Confessions that we Christians should use wisdom and beauty to good purposes wherever we find it, that we should plunder the world’s works of art and literature in the same way that the Jews left Egypt with the Egyptians’ wealth. I intend to do that this morning with this image.
Beauty and power cannot reside where avarice, greed, is allowed to ply her wares. For the children of God to be all that God has called us to be, we must cast avarice out of our own lives and out of the church. We must be generous, open hearted and handed, and quick to be a blessing with the material things that God has given us. And we must do this for God’s glory, as our covenant expresses:
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by
studying God’s Word faithfully,
learning the gospel together in family worship,
giving ear only to sound doctrine,
living out the gospel in our lives,
embracing the whole counsel of God.
We covenant to bring glory to God by,
gathering for worship faithfully,
singing to the glory of God,
joining together in fervent prayer,
doing good works to the Father’s glory,
living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ,
giving offerings to God joyfully and faithfully.
The Bible speaks a great deal about stewardship and how the children of God ought to handle the blessings that God has given us. One of the more intriguing discussions of this is found in 2 Corinthians 9. Here, Paul is informing the Corinthian church that he is sending a delegation to the church in order to receive an offering for the suffering saints of the Jerusalem church. The Corinthians had already agreed to contribute a year earlier and they apparently had the means to do so. Alongside the Corinthians, others, like the Macedonian Christians, had also agreed to contribute to the offering for Jerusalem. So Paul is sending a band of believers to Corinth to receive the promised offering. In preparing them for the arrival of this delegation, Paul discusses what Christian giving looks like and what its fruits are. Let us first hear this amazing chapter:
1 Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, 2 for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them. 3 But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be. 4 Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident. 5 So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction. 6 The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 9 As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 12 For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. 13 By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. 15 Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
Paul is calling for avarice to be cast out of the temple, for generosity to reign in the midst of God’s people.
The quality of the Christian’s giving.
The text is filled with descriptions of the qualities of the Christian’s giving. We first see that the Christian is to be ready to give.
2a-c for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year.
Paul commends the Corinthian believers that they were ready to give, eager to give, that he did not have to manipulate or cajole them into giving. It is a picture of a person poised to move. It is the opposite of a picture of a person having to be pulled begrudgingly into service. Are you ready to give?
And the Corinthians were zealous to give.
2d And your zeal has stirred up most of them.
Zeal refers to “an intense and earnest effort to reach a goal.” Again, such believers do not need to be shamed into giving. What is more, they are willing to give.
5 So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.
Paul preferred willing and free giving to coerced giving. I recall going to a revival service at a small country church in Anderson, SC, when I was in college. I honestly cannot recall why, but I went with my elderly English teacher, Dr. Bill West. The preacher was an angry older gentleman who was railing on and on about tithing. I will never forget him shouting, “If you don’t tithe, I wouldn’t let you walk my wife to the car…cause if you’ll steal from God I got NO IDEA what you’ll do to my wife!”
I was uncomfortable then…and I am uncomfortable now repeating it! What strikes me about that approach to getting people to give is how short-sighted it is. You do not get people to give by magnifying our sinfulness. You get people to give by magnifying God’s grace and God’s giving nature! To lead Christians to give well you do not need a heightened sense of guilt, you need a heightened sense of awe! The goal is not to get our determination bigger. The goal is to get the cross bigger in our lives, for the cross cannot help but stir us to giving. It is the cross, and Christ’s giving of Himself on it for us, that breaks our sense of stinginess and greed, that drives avarice from the temple, and that leads us to repentance and giving!
Paul further commended giving that was free and cheerful.
7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
New Testament scholar Linda Belleville has offered some interesting comments on Paul’s idea that “one must give as he has decided in his heart.”
The verb proaireomat, found only here in the New Testament, means “to choose deliberately” or “to make up one’s own mind about something.” It is a well-known fact that telethons that play on people’s emotions to solicit contributions often end up with donors who pledge impulsively but not deliberately enough to follow through on their pledge. Paul says that giving is to be based on a calculated decision. It is not a matter to be settled lightly or impulsively.
I believe that Paul’s emphasis on free and deliberate giving helps us understand the New Testament approach to the tithe as well. Many speak of the tithe as a binding law. Indeed, the tithe was called for in the Old Testament and is, I would say, a good and grounded guide to help us in our giving today. But the New Testament church does not seem to have ever used it as a law the way that many people do today. In truth, I would argue that the problem with having a legislated tithe in the local church is not that it asks too much but rather that it asks too little. If God’s people before the cross gave the tithe out of a sense of obligation and duty, how much more should God’s people on this side of the cross and in light of the giving of Christ on the cross give out of a sense of joy and gratitude? To reduce giving to (1) a duty and (2) a tithe without leaving room for cross-focused, cheerful, and free giving is to set the bar too low! Those who have become captivated by Christ crucified are people who are willing to give all that they have!
Do not give because it is a law! Give because it is a pleasure! Joyful giving does not arise out of compulsion but out of gratitude.
Thus, giving is to be deliberate and it is to be cheerful. The word “cheerful” comes from the Greek hilaron which refers to “joyful eagerness…amiable grace…affability.” Some extreme Pentecostal groups have seized on this image to promote the idea that giving should be accompanied by fits of hysteria: uncontrollable laughter, for instance, or fits of giggling. This is most certainly not what the text means. It means exuberant joy, cheerfulness, and happiness.
Think now of the quality of your own giving? Is it eager, ready, free, willing, joyful, and cheerful? Or is it begrudging and morose and miserly? The characteristics that Paul calls for in the giving of the Corinthian believers should mark our own giving, whether it be to a special offering or to our consistent giving in church. The principles of 2 Corinthians 9 are applicable in any situation, as Moyer Hubbard has written:
Although Paul’s comments here and in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 concern a special collection for the poor in Jerusalem, they also have important implications for the modern practice of tithing, giving from our income to support the ministry of the church. (1) Our giving should be regular: “On the first day of every week…set aside a sum of money” (1 Cor. 16:2). (2) It should be proportionate: “in keeping with one’s income” (1 Cor. 16:2); “according to your means” (2 Cor. 8:11). (3) It should be generous: “Whoever sows generously will reap generously” (2 Cor. 9:6). (4) Finally, it should be done joyfully: “not reluctantly…for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7-8). As in all things, our model is Jesus: “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (8:9).
This is what Christian giving looks like.
The fruit of the Christian’s giving.
2 Corinthians 9 is also filled with examples of the fruit of Christian giving.
Paul writes that when we give, others are encouraged to give.
2d And your zeal has stirred up most of them.
Linda Belleville notes that the Greek word for “stirred up” normally means “‘to provoke,’ ‘irritate’ or ‘rouse to anger’” but that “[h]ere it is used in the positive sense of rousing to action by means of an encouraging example.” The news of the Corinthians’ generosity had already stirred the Macedonians to great generosity. So, too, does all Christian giving. Those who see it are inspired by it. Think of the true acts of generosity you have seen in your life. Did those acts not inspire you to likewise be generous?
Similarly, a bad example in giving can cause others to be downcast, as Paul reveals when he says what the effects of the Corinthians not giving generously would be.
4 Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident.
Therefore, we can build others up or pull others down by our giving or lack of doing so.
What is more, the blessings of God fall upon us when we give. Paul presents a saying that was apparently well known in the ancient world. At the least, the principle was.
6 The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
Any farmer knows this! Would you like a large harvest? Then sow generously and in abundance! Would you like a small yield? Then be stingy with your seeds. The great danger at this point is that there are those within the church who take a verse like 2 Corinthians 9:6 to mean that there is a mechanistic aspect to giving, the end of which is your own financial betterment! This, of course, is profoundly wrongheaded. This is a principle, and a generally true one, but not a mechanistic one. It is possible that one might give and then lose what one has left. It is possible that one might do good and then have all manner of misfortune fall upon you. There is an entire book of the Bible, Job, that wrestles with this reality.
The great problem with such a distortion of a verse like this is that, ultimately, it makes giving about you! “Take your credit card, call the number on the bottom of the screen, and give $100, then God will send you $200!” Well, God might. He is God. But He might not. This much is certain: God is not mocked, and such a self-centered way of approaching this verse comes very close to mocking God. It mocks Him by treating Him as if He is a heavenly ATM machine! Charles Eerdman wrote the following in 1929:
This is a law of nature which applies in every experience of life. One who scatters but a little seed reaps but a small harvest, while generous sowing prepares for a harvest of abundant fruitage. Charity is thus not a casting away, but a sowing…Of course charity cannot be commercial. It ceases to be charity when exercised with a view to a reward…It is usually in accordance with God’s providential plan to increase the resources of the cheerful giver.
Yes, God will bless you if you give. Perhaps He will do so financially. Perhaps He will do so in other ways. Paul continues:
7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 9 As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.
Do you see? The blessing is that “all grace abound[s] to you.” The blessing is your increased capacity to receive the knowledge of who God is in Christ Jesus and how He has blessed you! The blessing is that “you may abound in every good work!” The blessing, whatever else God may choose for it to be, is that you get the privilege of serving the risen King!
We are equipped to be more generous.
Also, when we give we are equipped to be even more generous.
11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.
Stinginess begets more stinginess. Generosity begets more generosity. Give and God will show you how to give more! Be a blessing and God will make you a greater blessing!
The church will be moved to greater worship and praise!
And the effect on the church is powerful as well:
12 For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. 13 By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. 15 Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
Generous giving enables and stirs the church to give thanks! Generous giving enables and stirs the church to give glory to God! Generous giving enables the gospel to advance in the world! Generous giving magnifies “the surpassing grace of God.” And generous giving magnifies the generous gift that has been given for us, the “inexpressible gift” of Jesus Christ!
Give, church, to the glory of God!