February 26, 2007
God Loves a Cheerful Giver
In today’s text we see the Apostle Paul doing something that is at the top of most college presidents’ agenda: asking for money. More precisely, Paul—having already asked the church in Corinth for money—is providing a theology of giving in order to help them to do the right thing. In the chapter that precedes today’s lesson from 2 Corinthians, Paul reported to the Corinthians that the church in Macedonia, despite what he calls its “severe poverty” (8:2; all quotations from scripture are from the RSV), has sent a gift that “overflowed in a wealth of liberality” (8:2). The Macedonians, he notes, gave “beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (8:3-4). Paul’s message to the church in Corinth is simple: “As you excel in everything—in faith, in utterance, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in your love for us—see that you excel in this gracious work also” (8.7). In other words, don’t let yourselves be embarrassed by the Macedonians who, despite having fewer means, have made a handsome gift.
It’s evident in the early going of today’s reading that the church in Corinth has at least pledged to make a gift: Paul refers in verse 5 to “this gift you have promised” (9:5). So the work of this chapter of 2 Corinthians is to ensure that the Corinthians make good on their pledge. To that end, Paul is sending Titus and another unnamed “brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (8.17) to Corinth to encourage the church in its process of discernment.
When Paul writes to the church in Corinth he conceptualizes philanthropy as part of a process that begins with the divine exemplar, proceeds to the “readiness” to give (8:11), and then concludes with completing the gift Thus, in the chapter preceding today’s lesson Paul reminds his readers that, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (8:9). This is the divine exemplar. Christ became incarnate, suffered, and died on the cross so that we might live forever. This was the ultimate act of philanthropy—a word, we should remember, that at its root means love of humankind. Paul uses the metaphor of giving money away to characterize the redemptive act of Christ precisely because he wants the church in Corinth to think of the act of donating money as divinely sanctioned.
Thinking of giving in this context, according to Paul, brings you to the point of readiness to make a gift. “Readiness” here doesn’t simply mean that you’re willing to sign a pledge card. Rather, it signifies an urgent desire to be counted. The Macedonians, Paul reports, not only gave of their own free will but were “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (8:4). Similarly, in looking back a year to the time when the church in Corinth made its pledge, Paul remembers that the church began “not only to do but to desire” to make a gift. That’s why today’s lesson begins with Paul half-apologizing for even bringing up the subject of the Corinthians unpaid pledge: “Now, it is superfluous for me to write to you about the offering for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia” (9:1).
This readiness to give has an important effect on the way one thinks about the amount of the gift. According to Paul, “if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not” (8:12). In other words, “readiness” encourages us to think about a gift as an expression of thanks for what we have, not as a diminishment of our treasure. “Readiness” helps us to give freely from our abundance, not defensively. Paul wants the church in Corinth to fulfill its pledge “not as an exaction but as a willing gift” (9:5).
Paul has another way to express this idea: “God loves a cheerful giver” (9:7). This famous phrase means, quite simply, that God blesses gifts made both willingly and deliberately, not wrung out of the giver by emotional blackmail or impassioned pleas–what one commentary calls “emotional picking of pockets” (The Interpreter’s Bible , X, 375). Paul explains it this way: “Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion” 9:7). Research today shows us that in lives enriched by philanthropy the habit of giving begins early. Lifetime giving is “habitual and thoughtful” (The Interpreter’s Bible , X, 375) rather than exceptional and extraordinary.
Paul employs another figure of speech to make his point about “readiness,” but this one makes me nervous: “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (9:6). Another version of this thought in today’s lesson is, “He who supplied seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity . . . (9:10). These verses make me nervous because having just made a profound and eloquent argument for “cheerful” giving, Paul seems here to be encouraging generosity by appealing to self-interest: make a nice gift to the church because it will enrich you; it will “multiply your resources” as the RSV translation has it. Remember the scene from the musical Chicago where Queen Latifah, playing the warden of a corrupt women’s prison that’s run on a system of bribes sings, “When you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you”? This portion of the lesson feels a little like that.
But the best way to read this part of today’s lesson, I think, is to understand Paul as speaking metaphorically here, as he has been throughout this portion of the text. This isn’t a literal transaction, a kind of cosmic matching gift: you give God one dollar, God will leverage it into two for you. Rather, gifts cheerfully given do indeed produce their own reward for the giver. They won’t necessarily make you rich, but they will enrich you. Now, I don’t want to go so far as to claim that Paul had an advance copy of a recent article in The Economist (10/14/06) which reported that a study at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders found that the part of the brain involved in making decisions based on moral beliefs—such as where to direct one’s philanthropy– is the same part of the brain responsible for producing the chemicals associated with the euphoria caused by sex, money, food, and drugs, so that there is a physiological basis for the “high” associated with giving. Nevertheless, I do think it is consistent with the rest of this text to understand Paul to be arguing that the cheerful giver does indeed benefit from the gift given.
Now, you may be asking yourself “Why, now, in the Monday chapel service following the first Sunday in Lent—a time associated with austerity and contemplation—is the President talking about giving? There are several reasons.
For starters, I am about to start my eighth month as President of our college, and the one activity that has occupied the most of my time during that period has been asking for money for the college. The days when college presidents walked around campus wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, smoking a briar pipe, and engaging in avuncular conversation with students are over. College presidents are, above all, the public representation of the institution. Among the President’s most important roles are that of chief communicator for the college and its chief fundraiser. For our college in particular, the mandate to gather in resources is imperative. Compared to the other top colleges in America, the only area in which we lag is the amount of resources we can marshal to support our mission. We have a very clearly articulated sense of who we are as an institution; we have an ample supply of students who wish to receive our unique version of a liberal arts education rooted in the Christian gospel and incorporating a global perspective; we have an academic program that is second to none. What we don’t have is an endowment—that is, an amount of money invested by the college that generates earnings to support the annual budget and—over time—to make the college financially invulnerable. It’s my job to grow that endowment. I think about it all the time.
Another reason to think about giving at this season of the year is that we are on the downward slope to achieving our goal of $3.9 million in gifts to Partners, St. Olaf’s annual giving program. It is the responsibility of every member of the St. Olaf family—faculty and staff, students, alumni, friends of the college—to contribute every year to Partners. If we don’t hit our goal every year, our annual operating budget does not work. As of today our attainment towards our goal of $3.9 million is $2.3 million. If you are within the sound of my voice, either here in Boe chapel or listening to chapel streaming on the web and haven’t yet made your annual gift to Partners, now is the time, in the words of the Apostle Paul, for your “readiness in desiring” to be “matched by your completing it out of what you have” (8:11). If you can make a gift of $10 this year, we will receive it with rejoicing and you will receive those pleasures identified by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. If you can make a gift of $10,000, ditto. The amount matters, but so does the fact of the gift, for, as Paul has taught us, blessed giving is informed, considered, and habitual. Begin the habit now. We’ll talk down the road.
Another compelling reason to bring up the subject of giving now is that at 7 p.m. on March 1 in The Pause we will kick off the senior class giving campaign. Gifts to the senior campaign will be applied towards the Partners program, and the goal is an aggressive 85% participation rate. Seniors: think of yourself as the church in Corinth and the class of 2006 as the church in Macedonia. The Macedonians achieved an 84% participation rate last year, and you don’t want to be embarrassed by them!
A conversation about giving during Lent faces the same challenge that Pastor Koenig noted yesterday during worship here in the chapel. She noted that while Lent was a time for austerity and contemplation, we were also in the middle of a celebratory weekend, thanking God for the gift of a newly renovated chapel, a magnificent new organ, and a new Lutheran hymnal. We were caught, she noted, between two moods. So am I today. Indeed, this is Lent. But it is also the closing stretch of the Partners campaign, the opening of the senior giving campaign, and I’ve spent the last eight months in the company of Oles who have lived out Paul’s theology of giving. They have–willingly, thoughtfully, and deliberately—stretched to make extraordinary gifts to our college, gifts cheerfully given, gifts that reward the giver with the blessings of philanthropy. Very bluntly, the future of our college lies in our ability to imitate the example of Paul in 2 Corinthians by providing the case for giving and of Oles everywhere to imitate the example of the church in Corinth by responding to the theology of giving with gifts freely given.
I thank God for St. Olaf College and the work it does, and I pray for its future, a future secured by the gifts freely given by the community of the faithful.
David R. Anderson ’74