I was visiting my parent's home in Michigan recently and picked a book off the side table next to an overstuffed armchair. It was called "Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just," written by author and minister of a large Presbyterian church in Manhattan, the Rev. Timothy Keller. It was a book club selection for my parents and they were both reading it, so I gave it a whirl. I even sat in on their book club meeting a few days later.
"Generous Justice" is a doozy. It talks about why indeed it's a blessing to give and why and how the Bible tells followers of Christ to do it.
The basic premise of this book is that being a Christian means being concerned for the poor and disadvantaged and demonstrating that concern by sharing generously. Working for social justice is also part of that concern because, according to Keller, the response to feeling saved by Jesus Christ will germinate a spontaneous desire to help people who suffer, whether it's from discrimination, human trafficking, systemic poverty, illness or what-have-you.
Whether the poor person you share with "deserves" it or not, is not really important or relevant, because in the bigger picture, none of us "deserves" salvation.
Since it's Christmas and the season for charitable giving, I thought I'd explore this a little bit more fully with one of Novato's Presbyterian ministers, the Rev. Kent Webber of the . Webber is familiar with Keller's other books such as "Reason for God," but he hadn't read "Generous Justice" because it was only published this year.
Nonetheless, what Webber had to say about the act of giving was in alignment with Keller's message. Webber says,"If I'm representing Jesus Christ in a Christian message, I would say generosity is a sign or indicator, or really a requirement, for following Jesus."
In his own life, Weber says the Sermon on the Mount is a guiding principle because it "talks about anxiety in life and the anxiety of having possessions, and I do believe that when you give charitably, you are, in fact, storing up your treasure in heaven. In the context of worry," Webber says, "It's as the Bible says, 'Where your money is, there your heart will be also.'"
Wow, money is such a spiritual issue.
Webber responds: "Jesus spends more time in the Gospel talking about money than about prayer so it was a huge spiritual issue in his day, too."
And then comes the line that probably stimulated Keller to write his book in the first place articulated here by Webber: "For middle-class Americans, stewardship is probably for many the single biggest challenge of being a Christian."
Back at my parent's book club, "Generous Justice" provoked some intense discussion in a room full of already generous tithers. Nobody disagreed with Keller, but they were clearly challenged, puzzled and a little dismayed, not above looking for a loophole here or there.
"What about all the people in ... church who have cottages?" one man blurted, "I don't have just one home, I have two. What am I supposed to do?" Indeed.
The morning after the book club, my father dropped me off at the airport. I looked at his sweet 85-year old face and said, "Dad, don't let that book club discussion keep you and Mom from going on that cruise in February."
I was not kidding. I can see them cashing in their tickets and buying a herd of goats in Africa. It wouldn't be the first time. So yeah, I have a lifetime of mixed feelings on this one.
The last word surely cannot come from me, but I will say that if giving to the poor hurts a little bit, or more than a little bit, this year or any year, you are not alone, and it doesn't mean it's not a blessing to do it anyway.
And how weird is it that the person who exhorted us more than anyone else in history to give to the poor and destitute and bring justice to the downtrodden is celebrated with an explosion of consumer goods and materialism?