Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Humorist, newspaper columnist and social commentator Will Rogers once glibly remarked, “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.” His point is not so far off target. As the famous businessman William Feather astutely observed, “The philosophy behind much advertising is based on the old observation that every man is really two men — the man he is and the man he wants to be.”
Promoting everything from beer to soap, advertisers entice us to buy their product by creating discontentment with our present status. If we just buy the newest car, the elaborate entertainment center or the designer outfit, we will be satisfied. They promote their product by promising us happiness. After all, no one wants to be unhappy. Their method works, because many people deep down are not satisfied with their life.
Herein is the paradox of the constant buy-in to the need to have more and more. The more we want to get for ourselves, the less we give to others and the more unsatisfied and unhappy we actually become. St. Paul realized that the opposite is true. He taught that there is a vital connection between giving to others and experiencing for ourselves the happiness that comes from God.
In 1 Timothy 6, St Paul calls on the rich “not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment” (v. 17). He further exhorts the leaders of the church to “tell [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life” (v. 18-19).
At first, St. Paul’s instruction does not seem to apply to most of us. “Tell the rich,” he says. The word “rich” that Paul uses in Greek describes an incredible abundance and enormous affluence. Now that is a very limited group, after all. But not in Paul’s eyes. In the context of his instruction, St. Paul clearly means to say that anyone who has more than he needs to provide food, clothing, and shelter for himself and his family is rich (cf. 1 Tim 6:8).
Thus, for St. Paul, once we meet our basic needs, anything more is an incredible abundance that places us at the level of the “rich.” We may not have the most expensive car, the most luxurious house, the latest cellphone or a very large bank account. But, if we have discretionary funds, we are, in fact, rich according to St Paul; and, he is speaking to us.
Recent polls have shown that, as income goes up, people’s charitable giving goes down. Statistically, households earning under $100,000 give away 3.6 percent of their earnings to charitable causes, while those with incomes of $75,000 to $100,000 donate only 2.6 percent. Whatever our income, each of us needs to question how seriously we take St. Paul’s instruction.
When St. Paul says, “Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, ready to be generous and to share” (v. 18), he uses the Greek word paragelle. This Greek word is much stronger than simply “tell.” It is a military word meaning “command” or “charge.” This is important for all of us to keep in mind when it comes to giving. St. Paul is not dispensing helpful hints, like Dear Abby or Ask Ann Landers. He is giving an authoritative command. As followers of Jesus, we have our marching orders to be concerned for the spiritual and physical welfare of others.
Furthermore, St. Paul charges us to “do good” (v. 18). By our generosity of service and finance, we are to leave others in a better condition than they were before we helped out. In this verse, he uses a picture word in Greek that carries with it the image of one who really works at doing good, not one who lazily or half-heartedly helps others. St. Paul is, therefore, instructing all of us to be thoughtful, serious, and fervent about our giving. Our charitable giving should never be an afterthought. We are to be energetic and enthusiastic in our generosity.
Factually, by the rest of the world’s standards, most Americans are wealthy even if it does not seem that way for most of us. Now being rich is not a bad thing. God is the one who gives us the ability and the opportunity to make wealth. Taking seriously the teaching of Sacred Scripture, each of us needs to be a good steward of the things which the Lord allows us to have and enjoy. But, we also need to hold them loosely, ready to share them with the less fortunate.
To judge whether or not we are doing as St. Paul exhorts us, we need only answer a few questions for ourselves. When confronted with an opportunity to give of our finances, what is our response? Do we begrudge every gift we give? Do we feel like we are losing something when we give, or do we see our gift as a welcome opportunity to help enrich someone else’s life?
To know that we are truly biblical in our giving, we only need ask ourselves whether or not we receive joy from giving. After all, “the Lord loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). Joy in giving: this is the biblical test of our generosity.