The Spirit of Generosity — A Study in Contrasts
An adjective is a word that describes. If one says, “The house is green,” green is an adjective describing the structure’s color.
Adjectives are used of people as well. Most of us would like to think that noble adjectives are employed when folks think or talk about us. For example, “He is a good person.” Or, “She is generous.”
The term “generous” denotes one who freely gives to others, one who is willing to share — without expecting anything in return. Someone who gives manipulatively, i.e., anticipating something in return eventually, is merely a “user,” not a real giver.
But, surely, we all would like to be viewed as generous. On the other hand, we doubtless would be repelled by the notion that our friends think of us as “stingy.” Universally, the niggardly person is seen in an unfavorable light.
There is much information in the Bible which indicates how God assesses both the generous and the stingy person. He applauds the former and condemns the latter. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the tight-fisted individual is so unlike the benevolent Creator himself.
God is so giving. He gave us life itself (Acts 17:25), he constantly sustains us by his providential gifts (Acts 14:17), and, most significantly of all, he gave his beloved Son so that any sinful person might enjoy salvation if he so chooses (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 6:23).
In this study, we would like to call attention to some biblical contrasts with reference to the matter of generosity versus stinginess. It is an enterprise which will reveal, quite astoundingly, how God views these traits.
Abraham and Lot
When Abraham entered the land of Canaan, he was accompanied by his nephew, Lot. It may not be unreasonable to assume that the kindly Abraham had taken his nephew under his care with the death of Lot’s father.
At any rate, eventually a dispute developed between Abraham’s herdsmen and those of Lot. This disagreement distressed the noble patriarch; and so he made this generous suggestion. Lot was to survey the whole of the land and choose the territory he would claim for his own; the patriarch would take the “leavings.”
Rather than honoring his benevolent uncle, greedy Lot chose the well-watered valley of the Jordan, which was like a “garden of Jehovah” (Gen. 13:10). This episode was a real “index” as to the distinguishing character of these two men, and was a preview of things to come.
Nabal and Abigail
After the death of Samuel, there was a period of time when conditions were rather dark for David, the young champion who had slain the villain Goliath. Though Saul occupied the throne, God already had rejected him, and David has been anointed to take his place — eventually (1 Sam. 16:1-13). Saul, almost schizophrenic, would favor the lad one day, and on the next, would seek his life.
The shepherd youth wandered about the land (with a band of loyalists — about 600 in number), seeking refuge and enduring the rigors of being “on the run.”
One day David’s forces were in the neighborhood where a wealthy man, whose name was Nabal, was shearing his sheep. David had actually been a benefactor to the gentleman, protecting his flocks from local bandits (1 Sam. 25:15-16,21).
He therefore sent ten men to petition the prosperous Nabal for a few provisions. But the stubborn businessman, who is described as “harsh and evil” (25:3 — NASB), and who lived down to his name (which meant “fool” – vs. 25), rudely rejected the request. The stingy Nabal had nothing to share with this renegade he deemed to be a nobody (25:10-11).
David, doubtless in a moment of rashness, determined that he would destroy Nabal and every male in his household. He gathered together 400 men and proceeded toward his bloody mission.
Enter the picture — Abigail. She was the beautiful, wise, and generous wife of Nabal. One cannot but wonder how such a mismatch occurred. At any rate, she had learned of David’s intent and, with ample provisions, intercepted his approaching band.
Abigail fell at the warrior’s feet and asked that any blame fall to her. She apologized on behalf of her “worthless” husband (v. 25), and presented the gifts she had brought. David interpreted this as an act of providence (v. 32) and reversed his plan.
The Lord, however, wrote his own epilog to the story. Ten days later, “Jehovah smote Nabal, so that he died” (v. 38) — a divine commentary, perhaps, on how Heaven views the covetous disposition!
Barnabas Versus Ananias and Sapphira
In the early days of the church’s existence, certain needs arose that had to be met. Because of the conglomerate of disciples that remained in Jerusalem following the commencement of the church on the day of Pentecost, an emergency situation existed. Lodging was needed for foreign saints, food was required for the hungry, etc.
By and large, the brotherhood was characterized by a wonderful spirit of sharing. Many sold possessions and divided their income with others (Acts 2:45); indeed, the vast majority operated under the premise, “what is mine is thine” (cf. 4:32-35).
One person, especially singled out for mention was Joseph, called “Barnabas,” a “son of exhortation,” i.e., one who was of much encouragement to others. From Cyprus originally, Barnabas, later described as “a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (11:24), owned a field. He sold his real estate and gave the resources to the apostles to distribute as they deemed appropriate (4:36-37). Clearly, this brother was greatly loved, highly respected, and quite influential.
The record of his example, however, is obviously introduced as a contrast to a sticky-fingered couple in Jerusalem, whose names were Ananias and Sapphira. Notice how Acts, chapter 5, begins ominously with a contrasting particle, “But …” This pair, and the generous Barnabas, were as different as midnight and noon!
The details of the episode regarding Ananias and Sapphira are almost too well-known to need elaboration. Like Barnabas, they sold a possession. Unlike the “son of exhortation,” however, they brought only a portion of the revenue to the apostles, while representing the sum as the whole amount for which the object was sold (cf. vv. 8,9).
They both died, obviously as the result of divine judgment. Though they were specifically charged with lying to God, is there any doubt but that greed was an underlying factor in their apostasy? As an apostle would later write:
“the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil: which some reaching after have been led astray from the faith, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:10).
A Rich Fool and the Good Samaritan
Two characters in Jesus’ parables illustrate the bold relief in the dispositions we have been describing.
A man approached Christ and sought help in settling a family dispute over money matters. The Lord rebuked the gentleman and warned him of the dangers of covetousness (Lk. 12:15).
The master Teacher then told of a certain wealthy man whose crops filled his barns. Thinking selfishly of no one but himself (in his soliloquy he employs first person pronouns about a dozen times), he determined that he would expand his storehouses. God called him a “fool” and informed the egotist that his days on earth were over (vv. 16-21).
In stark relief was a Samaritan, who came across a wounded Jew on the dangerous road that led from Jerusalem to Jericho (Lk. 10:30ff). Ignoring potential harm to himself, he cared for the man, even providing for some three weeks of lodging in an inn along the way (Jeremias, 205). The Lord’s evaluation of the stingy, in contrast to the generous, is apparent.
Paul and Demas
Aside from the blessed Savior himself, there probably has been no greater benevolent soul than that of Paul the apostle. The major affirmation of his life was: “And I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor. 12:15).
Of special interest is the fact that the term “spent” (15b), is a passive, reflexive form, suggesting that one permits himself to be “spent out” entirely, or, as we might express it, to be “used up.” And to think, this was written to a church that more than likely appreciated Paul less than many others!
Paul had given much (more than we will ever fathom) to be a Christian. It is likely that he had been disowned by at least some family members. Certainly he had surrendered his prominence as a leading Hebrew scholar. All these things, which once had been “gain” to him, he had thrown away for the sake of Jesus (Phil. 3:7ff).
The apostle had forfeited much of his health to serve his God. He had been beaten repeatedly, stoned at Lystra, and shipwrecked at least four times. On occasion, he had been hungry and thirsty, and without sufficient clothing. He had been at death’s door often, and yet, all of these hardships he happily endured for the honor of being a disciple of the Lord (cf. 2 Cor. 11:23ff).
Paul had trekked the Mediterranean world, from Arabia in the east (cf. Gal. 1:17) to Rome in the west (Acts 28:16ff), and perhaps even farther (cf. Rom. 15:24), a distance of at least 12,000 miles. This rugged soul had learned well his Master’s admonition: the one who devotes himself to giving, is far happier than he who is ever the recipient (cf. Acts 20:35).
Consider, by way of contrast, one of Paul’s erstwhile companions, known simply as Demas. This brother is thrice mentioned in the letters of Paul. First, he was with the apostle at some point during Paul’s initial Roman imprisonment. His salutation is conveyed to Philemon, and he is complimented as Paul’s “fellow-worker” (Philem. 24).
Later, when the apostle penned a letter to the brethren at Colossae, he strangely says: “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas salute you” (Col. 4:14). Luke is “the beloved”; Demas, at this point, is just plain Demas. There appears to be a distance, a stiffness, in that.
Noted scholar J. B. Lightfoot remarked that the language here is possibly a “foreshadowing” of things to come in connection with Demas. He comments that in this context Demas “is dismissed with a bare mention and without any epithet of commendation” (240).
Finally, in the last epistle he ever wrote before being led away to execution, Paul urged Timothy to “give diligence to come shortly to me.” The reason for the urgency is stated: “for Demas forsook me, having loved this present world, and went to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:9-10).
Paul’s word for “loved” is from agape. Scholars have associated this term with an action that tends “to choose its object deliberately … a calculated disposition” (Turner, 263).
Did Demas grow tired of giving so much of his time to the Lord? Did he resent the deprivation of income? Was he weary of hot, dusty roads, or bone-chilling nights?
It is not fanciful to conclude that probably he finally had gotten a “belly full” of the sacrificial life, and so made a calculated decision to follow his heart back into the pleasures of that wicked era.
There are many members of the church who live far closer to the stingy side of the ledger than they do the generous. We need to search our souls and determine whether or not we can do better.
- Jeremias, Joachim. 1954. The Parables of Jesus. Scriber’s: New York, NY.
- Lightfoot, J. B. 1892. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. Macmillan: London, England.
- Turner, Nigel. 1981. Christian Words. Nelson: Nashville, TN.