The Theology of Giving
This title may seem odd to some people. We do not often think of our contributions to the Church's financial needs as having much, if anything, to do with God or theology. We should remember, however, that everything in our parishes, indeed everything in life, must be founded on the solid foundation of the Gospel. Certainly, then, our material contributions must also reflect our faith and our spiritual commitment; we must not base our donations merely on worldly financial considerations.
The theology of giving rests on two principles: (1) we have a need to give, and our donations are a response to something which is part of our very nature; and (2) we must give proportionally, that is, in proportion to our income.
To give is a fundamental human need for two reasons. Firstly, we human beings are created in God's image, and God reveals Himself above all as One who expresses Himself in compassion and love. In other words, He is a God who gives. Our salvation rests on that truth. The Gospel tells us that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son ... " (John 3:16).
Secondly, as Orthodox Christians we are subject to the law of love, taught by Christ both in word and example. We, therefore, have a need to give because the essence of love is giving, the sharing of oneself with others. One of our Lord's parables, the familiar story of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus, tells us this (Luke 16:19-31). Christ speaks movingly of the poor man's needs, but he also focuses on the rich man's hardheartedness. The rich man had a need, too - the need to grow in love and compassion and to express that love by helping his poor neighbor. The rich man shows that his only real concern is for himself when he gives the beggar only the crumbs from his table and devotes the rest of his wealth to providing himself with fine clothing and sumptuous banquets. Unfortunately many people give to the Church in the same way, dedicating their resources to themselves and leaving their parishes with the crumbs left over.
In many other places the Scriptures address the need of the giver, as well as the needs of the recipient. Our Lord presents giving as a necessity in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:1-18. In these verses our Lord speaks of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving - the three "pillars of piety." The key point here is that Christ links these three together as practices necessary for Christian growth. This means, among other things, that we give for the same reason that we pray or fast. We do not pray because God or the Church needs our prayers. We do not fast because God or the Church needs our fasting (nor because the fishing industry or the produce dealers need the extra business). Why then should we imagine that we give for God's benefit or for the Church's needs! We pray because we have a need to experience the communion with our heavenly Father that prayer provides; we fast because our development as Christians requires that foundation of discipline that fasting provides. We also need to give because it is only through expressing our Christian love that this love can grow and mature. It is only through giving that we can cultivate the proper Christian attitude toward the world and toward that part of the world's bounty which God has entrusted to us, our material possessions.
Every Orthodox Christian acknowledges that we should give to the support of our Church. We all realize that we should return to God a portion of that which we have received from Him. Problems often arise, however, when we must decide how much to give. Do we determine the amount simply by whim? Do we provide for all the "necessities" of life (which usually includes a few luxuries as well), and then give to God a bit from what is left over?
The first and over-riding principle of Christian stewardship is that we give proportionally, that is, a percentage of our income. We yield back to God according to the degree that we have been blessed; the more He has given us, the more we should return, in gratitude and love. We give to God not merely a portion of what we receive, but a proportion.
We are all familiar with the Old Testament tithe. From the very beginning, the tithe establishes that giving a percentage of our income is the norm. Proportional giving is not just an Old Testament idea, however. Our Lord also speaks of it. In His parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19: 11-27), the Master commends the first two servants because they bring Him an increase in proportion to the amount they received from Him. In another place Christ extols the meager donation of a poor woman far more than the exorbitant contributions of the well-to-do (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). Why does he do this? The rich had given far greater amounts, had they not? The Lord Himself tells us why her gift was more valuable: "They all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had." In other words, she had given a far greater proportion of her possessions than had her wealthier neighbors. Finally, as if to rebuke us for not understanding the examples He has given, our Lord turns to us and says plainly, "Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required" (Luke 12:48). This applies to every aspect of our Christian life - to our spiritual gifts, to our talents and skills, and to our material possessions.
One of the most pernicious ideas about giving, and one very often heard, is that we give because "the Church needs the money." For many, this has become the only reason for giving. True, this is one of the reasons for giving; the Church exists in the world and needs money to conduct its secular business. But when this relatively minor reason becomes the main reason, as it often does, the more important spiritual basis of giving is lost.
We cannot let our awareness of the Church's secular needs conceal the spiritual realities of giving and the proportional basis on which it must rest. We need to look first at the mission which Christ has given to us as His Church and then at how richly He has blessed us so that we can fulfill that mission. We cannot look first at the Church's "needs" and then decide how much we feel like contributing toward meeting them. When we approach stewardship in this way, we only pretend to put the needs of the Church first. Our thinking is not focussed on the Church but on ourselves.
We need, above all, to see giving as a part of our spiritual life. We must recognize that,like prayer, fasting, Scripture reading, etc., giving is something which contributes to our growth in God's image and likeness. When we do this we not only grow personally, but we provide our Church with the resources necessary to fulfill the mission which Christ has created it to perform.
Fr. Dmitri Cozby, January 1991
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