The Universal Notebook: Is it really more blessed to give?

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As we are in the holiday season, a traditional season of charitable giving, I have been considering what the Bible asks of us in terms of generosity. In many ways, it’s a mixed message.

Acts 20:35 tell us, “In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

To say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” suggests that there is something divinely ordained about being successful, as though affluence were a virtue. Surely, Jesus, a champion of the poor and oppressed, could not possibly have meant that the rich are more blessed than the poor. And what does it say to those in need? That they are less favored of God because they must receive alms? Not a very Christian concept as far as I’m concerned, but then I’m a pretty tenuous Christian.

Matthew 19:24 tells us “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.” Taken literally, this would seem to suggest that since a camel clearly cannot pass through the eye of a needle the rich cannot enter the kingdom of God. But then I’ve always read this passage to simply mean “You can’t take it with you.” You can’t enter the kingdom of God burdened by all of your worldly possessions.

In Luke 18:22 we read that Jesus said, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and, come, follow me.”

This statement might suggest that being penniless is somehow virtuous, that divesting one’s self of wealth and taking a vow of poverty is what is required of a true Christian disciple. Certainly there are many religious orders that embrace this principle of forsaking worldly riches in order to have treasures in heaven.

One of my tenuous relationships to Christian doctrine, however, is my stubborn faith that the kingdom of God is within. It is not some other world than this one, not some heaven in the skies but the good earth God has created. It is our job to work for the transformation of the deeply flawed human realm into the just and peaceful kingdom God promises.

As we read in Matthew 20:16, when this transformation occurs, “The last will be first, and the first last.” So who will be more blessed then?

My own imperfect human understanding is that the givers need the receivers and the receivers the givers. We are one people, individual members of one body. You can only receive the blessing of giving if another is gracious enough to receive.

All of these Biblical pronouncements about wealth resonate here in early 21st century America as our present economic crisis – and the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots – prompt political arguments over who is to blame. Conservatives blame the poor for requiring expensive social services. The rest of us blame the rich for not paying their fair share.

“The point is this,” we read in Second Corinthians 9:6-7, “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Conservatives seem to believe that the charitable giving the Bible preaches should be a matter of individual choice, faith-based initiatives, a thousand points of light. Those of us who are progressives believe that the failings of consumer capitalism are so systemic that government intervention is required to level the playing field and provide a safety net for the victims of our runaway economy.

That’s why I am just as angry with President Obama for proposing catastrophic cuts in funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program as I am at Gov. LePage for proposing to drop 65,000 low-income, disabled, and elderly citizens from MaineCare. Yes, we all need to donate freely to local fuel assistance funds, food banks, and other worthy causes, but we also need to express the common will of the people to take care of those in need. We can and we must.

God loves a cheerful giver. That’s a pretty clear holiday message. Cheer up. Give generously. Merry Christmas.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.