What Connects Generosity to Joy?

November 19, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Luke 15:11-32

It’s one of the best-known stories in the gospels. In fact, it’s one of those parts of the Bible that has migrated out of a solely Christian context and into the consciousness of the world at large. That was brought home to me last night. We celebrated an interfaith wedding here in the sanctuary – one of our members marrying a Hindu woman – and that celebration continues this morning out in Maple Grove at the Hindu Temple . A number of our members are there today.

At the dinner after the wedding I was seated next to a lovely Hindu couple. They described what would take place at the Hindu Temple this morning and I described what would take place this morning in the sanctuary here at Westminster. She said, “What are you preaching on?”

I said, “The prodigal Son. Let me tell you about that.”

She said, “Oh, I know all about that. We know about that in the Hindu world,” and proceeded to recite the parable to me.

As Jesus tells it, a father is asked by the younger of his two sons for his inheritance long before it’s due them. The father graciously complies and gives both sons the inheritances that would be theirs one day.

The parable then follows the misadventures of the younger son. He goes to a far land and squanders his fortune in what the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible calls “dissolute living.”

Dissolute living. That’s not a common phrase for us. The Greek word here is asotos. It’s from a root word having economic significance, not saved or wasted. To spend recklessly.

The old King James Version has a very colorful way of saying it. It says the son “wasted his substance with riotous living.”

Later in the parable the older son cuts to the chase and speaks more plainly. “This son of yours” he says to his father, “Has devoured your property with prostitutes.”

Little did I know last summer when this text was selected for today’s reading that it would have a peculiarly recognizable resonance for us. There’s a lot of “dissolute living” – “riotous living” – coming to light in recent weeks, much of it around sexual misconduct. That’s in essence what the older son says his little brother has done: squandered the family’s money on sexual exploits, using his wealth and the power that comes with it to take advantage of women in that far off land. That sounds distressingly familiar to us. In our hearing of the story in 2017, suddenly the younger son, heretofore anonymous, begins to take on any number of names.

What was once irresponsibly deemed “the world’s oldest profession,” it turns out, would be better called “the world’s oldest male problem.” This is not the only place it happens in the Bible. The abuse that comes from patriarchy and power is everywhere and it all times, and will not be quickly undone. Let’s hope these recent weeks have added momentum to its dismantling. And let us each examine, especially the men among us, how we can be part of the deep cultural change that is needed.

It gives me new respect for the older son. He stayed behind to help the family. He followed the rules. He did not spend his share of the inheritance recklessly. No dissolute living in his life. Naturally, he’s angry when his brother who has squandered all his father’s resources strolls back onto the scene and is welcomed with open arms. Sure, he expresses remorse and repentance, but shouldn’t there be some punishment, some discipline, some comeuppance for what he has done?

That’s not what the father thinks. He doesn’t even wait for the younger son’s apology. He runs to embrace him and then throws a lavish party with fine wine and good food, while the older son sulks in the background.

The notion that all can be easily forgiven is challenging, to say the least – especially if there’s no repentance. At least the younger son in the parable does not deny what he did. He names it. He owns it. And he doesn’t try to justify or excuse his actions. He takes responsibility.

The very act of his coming home demonstrates his desire to return to the fold, this time on the family’s terms. The father instinctively understands this. The son has already shown he has let go of his old ways and will no longer pretend– as so many men do – that somehow his behavior was acceptable.

As the parable concludes there are two unhappy sons and one father filled with joy. The younger son is utterly ashamed and feels himself not worthy of love. The older son is jealous, bitter, angry, and resentful. Another typical dysfunctional biblical family – and there are many of them in scripture.

The irony here is that of the three characters in the story, only the father has been wronged. Only he has good reason to complain about these sons of his. Why, then, is he full of joy? It’s his generosity. His generosity. There’s a direct link between being generous and finding joy.

As a preamble to the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells a couple other short parables: the story of the man with 100 sheep who loses one and goes to find it and the story of the woman who has ten coins but loses one and turns her house upside down until she finds it. Both parables end in joy when the sheep and coin are found.  Then Jesus says, just before he tells the story of the Prodigal,

“Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

The father in the parable of the Prodigal is the shepherd who rejoices over one sheep that was lost but now is found. He’s the woman who rejoices when she finds the one lost coin. These are lessons Jesus teaches on how to find joy, and in each case, the path lies through generosity.

What connects generosity to joy? In these parables we can see a pattern.

First, the practice of true generosity requires humility, and humility leads to joy. If we need to be front and center in our giving we’re not being truly generous. If making a gift requires something in return, then we’ve substituted pride for humility and it will not lead to joy. The father in the story holds all the power when the younger brother returns, but he chooses to set it aside and in humble gratitude – against the better judgement of all in the community and family, no doubt – in humility the father offer a generous welcome to his son.

I’m grateful that the leaders of the Open Doors Open Futures capital campaign decided early on there would be no “naming rights.” The new wing was not for sale, piece by piece, room by room, to the highest bidder. Where’s the generosity in that? Where’s the humility in offering a gift for which you will be rewarded? And why is one gift any better or more important than another? One of the most humble characters in scripture is that poor widow – you remember her that day at the Temple treasury – who gives everything she has; I imagine that even though her gift was small in comparison to others, her joy was greatest of all.

The practice of generosity requires humility.

Second, the practice of true generosity requires trust, and trust leads to joy. The father in the story throws caution and custom to the wind, defying everyone’s expectations to offer a feast for his son – not knowing if it will pay off. Will the son return to dissolute living? Can he trust him?

There’s risk in being generous. When we give, we wonder if our gift will be used as we expect it to be. Will it be deployed responsibly and to the desired effect? Without trust in the relationship between giver and receiver, between father and son in the story, the gift becomes transactional – this for that – and it ceases to be given out of generosity. There’s not much joy in transaction; on the other hand, when generosity arises out of trust there is always joy.

Years ago I used to make pastoral calls on an older member of the church who has since died. Every time I visited her, as I was about to leave, she would ask, “Is there anything the church needs?”

At first, as a young minister I didn’t know what to say and was taken aback. “No, we’re fine,” I would reply. “I was just here to visit.”

“Well let me know,” she would say. “If you don’t tell me I won’t know how to help.”

She trusted this congregation deeply, her long-time community of faith, so completely that she was ready to give for any need of the church without any rationale or case statement. Moved by her trust and urged on by her question every time I visited, I began showing up with something in mind when she asked if Westminster needed anything. It brought her great joy to give, and her generosity was founded on the trust she had in us.

The practice of generosity requires trust.

Finally, the practice of true generosity requires relinquishment, and relinquishment leads to joy. If our being generous doesn’t require us to let go, to release, to give up, then we’ve missed the point. When the father in the parable chooses to welcome his sons with no questions asked and no expectations, he has to give up his anger. He has to relinquish his disappointment. Surely he had some anger. He has to let go if it. He has to release his desire to punish or get back at his wayward son. Only then does he find joy.

A delegation from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, our church’s national aid organization, recently visited our denomination’s churches on the island of Puerto Rico. Their report illustrates the power of being generous by giving up:

“Sunday at Monteflores Presbyterian Church near downtown San Juan. there was no power, but that didn’t stop the congregation from lifting its voice… Even without lights and music from an electric keyboard, the musicians turned to guitars and drums to set the tone for worship…If not for the power outage and the boxes of donated goods in an adjoining room, it would be easy to forget about the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria over 50 days ago. “

The delegation was struck everywhere they went by the unrelenting joy they found among the church members with whom they visited, nearly two months into the disaster.

One of the visitors reports,

“New faces are showing up in worship, having seen the face of Christ in the generosity of the congregation’s members, who, in deprivation themselves, have shared what they have with open-hearted kindness.”

That’s what relinquishment looks like. A letting go. A giving up. An offering. It leads to generosity – and joy is not far behind.

“Even after 53 days of no electricity,” the Puerto Rican pastor said, “We should be asking ‘What have I given?’ instead of ‘What have I received?’ Generosity is necessary.”

“Our generosity makes us feel richer inside,” the pastor went on to say, standing in his rain-soaked, damaged sanctuary.

Generosity changes everything. The disaster in some ways has been a blessing.”

(“Group Worships and Meets with Local Churches” by Rick Jones; Presbyterian News Service, 11/14/17)

Generosity changes everything.

The practice of true generosity requires relinquishment. It requires trust. And it requires humility.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, in fact the entire gospel itself, isn’t told merely to encourage us to be more generous or forgiving; it’s meant to illustrate what brings God joy. Jesus offers a lesson in finding joy in life, no matter our circumstances, and it comes through generosity.

On Stewardship Sunday, as we dedicate our pledges we’re thinking of generosity primarily in terms of financial gifts. After all, we have an exciting year ahead that we want to support financially. We do not intend to protect anyone from their own generosity.

But being generous is about more than money. It defines the nature of our relationships with others as Christians, at work or at school or at home, among friends and neighbors, or with our most intimate partners. Between men and women.

Generosity is the fundamental Christian virtue, the way of life for those of us who follow Jesus.

Generosity changes everything. And it’s the pathway to deep and abiding spiritual joy.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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