"Generosity Changes Everything"
Scripture - Luke 16:19-31
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, September 29, 2013

Heidi Neumark visited a Roman Catholic parish in one of the poorest areas of Mexico City. Mass was being held outdoors, and she arrived as people were setting up plastic chairs in a circle around the brightly dressed communion table. The liturgy followed a familiar pattern with songs, readings, a homily and passing the peace. When it was time for the offering, people walked to the table carrying small, plastic bags filled with some white substance. As the guitar band played, all of the worshipers stepped forward and poured the contents of their bag into coffee cans placed on the table. Rice. Each person was pouring rice into cans that were soon filled to the brim.1

After the service, the priest explained that, every day, each of these poor families takes at least one spoonful of rice and sets it aside. This sacrifice makes a great impact on those who receive one of the cans, usually someone in a home where a person has become ill or died.2

The practice of setting aside spoonfuls of rice wove giving into everyone's daily routine. Your neighbors' daily bread was part of your own, something you remembered each time you cooked or even picked up a spoon. It made a difference because it was a pattern embraced by the whole community and it connected their worship around the Lord's Table to the tables in their neighbors' homes.3

This morning's parable from the Gospel of Luke tells of a man who refused to look beyond his own table and to share his rice. It is a haunting parable with a crucial message. When those who have, fail to share with those who have not, it creates a great gulf between God and those who withhold.

When we study the gospels, we discover that Jesus talks more about money than he talks about prayer. I suspect that's because Jesus knew that wealth and possessions have such a powerful pull on us. The desire for wealth and the resistance to sharing have likely lured more people away from God than anything else.

Confirmands, when I was your age I thought about what career to pursue. If you are not already pondering it, you will soon. To help you with that decision, I encourage you to focus on three questions. First, what talents do you possess? All of us have certain strengths and weaknesses; what are yours? Basic football strategy also applies to your career: run to your strengths.

The second question: What do you enjoy? Working with numbers? Languages? Do you like the challenge of solving problems? What piques your curiosity? Pursue the things you find energizing.

The third question to ask yourself: What does God want you to do with your life? Your church experiences - confirmation classes, 180 youth group, worship, mission experiences and retreats - all nourish your spiritual life and will help you grasp the importance of following the way of Jesus. Attempting to discern God's guidance will lead you away from some paths and toward others that will prove more satisfying.

When I was your age, focusing on these three questions was extremely helpful. But, I wish I would have given more attention to a fourth question. What kind of person should I become? Regardless of the field you pursue, what will others identify as your personal characteristics?

We are born with a number of traits and our environment also shapes us. However, we also make decisions about the personal traits we acquire. The habits we establish shape our character. If you make it a habit to do something gracious for others, you will become compassionate. If your first question is always, "What's in it for me?" you will become selfish. If you routinely discover the good in every situation, you will become a positive person. If you make it a habit to seek revenge when someone hurts you, you won't become a patient or forgiving person. If you want to become a generous person, you must develop a habit of giving and a system for carving out a portion of what you have. The poor Mexicans use plastic bags. What system have you devised to help you become generous? When a disaster strikes, most people will readily respond and that's wonderful, but a generous heart gives monthly, weekly, daily.

The evolutionary principle of "the survival of the fittest" has led many to believe that we are hard-wired for selfishness. Life is viewed as a competition where the strongest and the smartest get ahead of others.

However, Charles Darwin, evolutionist that he was, remained obsessed with the question: Why are some creatures altruistic?

If we are predisposed to look out for number one, then why are so many people concerned about the welfare of others and willing to make sacrifices on their behalf?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights fascinating brain research. Today, neuroscientists are studying the specific regions of the brain that are affected by altruistic behavior. Thanks to fMRI, a functional neuroimaging procedure that measures changes in blood flow in the brain, scientists can identify what goes on in our brains when we give. They have discovered that generosity is inherently rewarding. The brain produces a pleasurable response by releasing dopamine when we are generous. By observing certain parts of the brain light up, scientists can actually see what people of faith have known for centuries, that giving makes us feel good.

Brain studies also show that people who want to give feel more pleasure than those who feel coerced to give. Thus, not only was the Apostle Paul spot on when he said, "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7), but cheerful givers become even more cheerful!

A Stanford psychiatrist and bioengineer has found that by putting an optic fiber into a mouse's brain and turning on the light, he can make the mouse more interested in others.4

This is wonderful news for people who run stewardship campaigns. As I envision it, one day we will not have to preach stewardship sermons or mail letters or produce videos to encourage people to be generous when giving to the church. We will simply slip something into your morning coffee to light up the proper section of your brain and then hand you a pledge card.

But until that day arrives, we must all do the hard work of thinking and making the decision to respond. Why are we encouraged to fill out a pledge card?

One reason is that it helps our leadership plan the church's budget for the coming year. They can calculate how much we can spend on church school materials, how much financial support we can give to local feeding or housing ministries, and how much we can give to our global partners in Guatemala or Congo. They can determine how much we can pay Paul!

However, there are much more important reasons to fill out a pledge card than budget planning. Pledging helps each of us become more intentional in our giving to God. It reminds us to develop a system for setting aside a portion of our rice. It prods us to think about what we have and how generous we could become.

Some might ask, "Why not give to the United Way instead of the church?" Who will be there for you when you lose your job or your marriage falls apart? Will the United Way baptize your children? Who will show up in the hospital when you have surgery? Who will pray with you when you're facing a crisis? Who will provide classes to help you grow in your faith and to teach our children about God and what makes for an abundant life? Who will bury your loved one?

Making a pledge also deepens our connection with God because it is a concrete way of demonstrating our commitment. It says to God, "I'm not going to wait and see if I have anything remaining at the end of the month and, if so, give that. Rather, I'm going to commit a certain portion of my income to God because God wants me to support our faith community, to help people in need and to become a generous person."

Someone said there are two kinds of givers. First-givers give to God first, then live on everything else. Leftover givers take care of their needs, then take care of their wants, then give God what's left over - if there is anything left.

A few days ago, a Delaware judge posted on his Facebook page something that happened in his courtroom last Wednesday. He said, "I don't often comment on things that occur at work but I wanted to share something that happened today."

A man came before him because there was a warrant for his arrest for failing to pay on a traffic case. The judge asked him why he had not made the payment and the man gave a litany of reasons. His children had medical bills, he struggled to buy food, small paycheck and so on. The judge said it was the typical list of excuses he hears everyday; some of it true and a lot of it questionable.

However as the judge talked to the man about getting his fine paid, there was a knock on the door of the court room. In walked a woman the judge knows very well. She is an attorney and she served as his campaign manager a few years ago when he ventured into politics. The judge said, "If judges hear stories all day long, you know lawyers hear even more and no doubt grow numb to the excuses their clients give as to why they are in a jam. But this woman said, "Pardon me, Your Honor, I just met this young man in the lobby and I want to pay his fine in full."

She explained that while waiting for a matter she had before the court, she was sitting in the lobby and struck up a conversation with this man. He did not know who she was or that she was an attorney. They simply shared some time in the court lobby. During the conversation, he revealed how hard he was struggling as a single father to keep a roof over his kids' heads and put food on the table. He has a job that one week gives him plenty of hours and the next has almost none. He never knows how he will be able to meet his monthly bills. The man had nothing to gain by telling her about his situation because he thought she was also a defendant awaiting trial.

When the woman said she wanted to pay his fine, the grown man broke down in tears. The weight lifted off his shoulders as he realized his debt would be paid and he would have his driver's license reinstated, so he could drive to work. You could see how truly grateful he was for what this perfect stranger was doing for him.

This beautiful gesture prompted the judge to recall the words of a speech that President Kennedy made five months before he was assassinated. He was talking about the missile crisis, the tensions with the Russians and the ominous threat to the world. He said, "For, in the final analysis, our most common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."5

If the man in Jesus' parable had understood this, he would not have ignored the poor man at his gate. He would have remembered that we are all God's children, that what we have during our time on earth is on loan to us - it's all an incredible gift; and, if we are generous, we can actually transform people's lives.

Being generous changes other people's lives and it changes our lives. Generosity changes everything. Who will you become in the days ahead? The man at the table who ignored those in need or the one who daily sets a portion of your rice aside for others?


  1. Heidi Neumark, "Reflections on the Lectionary," Christian Century, October 31, 2012, p.21.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Elizabeth Svoboda, "Hard-Wired for Giving," The Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2013.
  5. James Hanby, Justice of the Peace for the State of Delaware.