A Teaching for Our Sake
June 12, 2005
One of the problems that many of us have in following the teachings of Jesus is that we see those teachings as a series of obligations, as a list of commands against which we are asked to measure our discipleship. Some of us might even see them as a set of hurdles over which we are asked to jump in order to demonstrate our love for God. Now, as disciples we are clearly obliged to follow the teachings of Jesus. But to understand them as some kind of test or burden that we are asked to bear is to approach them in an exactly wrong direction.
Consider the teaching of Jesus that comes at the end of today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “The gift you have received, give as a gift.” Our inclination is to approach this teaching as an obligation. “Yes,” we say, “I should be more giving. I should be more generous. If I were more generous, I would more clearly show that I am a follower of Christ.” Now this is true. But, approaching the teaching as a simple command, overlooks another benefit of the teaching. Jesus’ teaching that we be generous is not commanded for God’s sake or even simply for our neighbor’s sake. Jesus gives us this teaching for our sake, for our benefit. When Jesus asks us to be generous, He is not giving us an obligation to be met, but a secret to be lived. The secret is this: when we are generous, we are happy. This teaching of generosity leads us to a deeper life.
Carl Menninger was one of the founders of modern psychotherapy, and he spent his life work diagnosing various mental illnesses. Menninger recounts a therapy session with a very wealthy client who was beset with depression and fear. In the course of that session, the doctor asked the client, “What do you plan to do with all your money?” “I don’t know,” said the client, “probably just worry about it, worry about keeping it, worry about making more of it.” So, Menninger asked, “Tell me this, is this worrying about your money giving you pleasure?” “No,” the man sighed, “not at all. It is only making me more fearful and depressed—yet, the thought of giving up any of my money terrifies me.” It was out of this encounter that Menninger devised one of the central principles of his philosophy: generous people are seldom mentally ill—generous people tend to be healthy people.
Jesus’ teaching on generosity is not simply a command given for our neighbor’s sake. It is for our sake because it introduces us to a way of living that increases our freedom and increases our joy. When there is something good in our lives, our natural inclination is to hold onto that good thing, to keep it safe. Jesus is telling us that if we wish to be happy, we should be generous, we should give what we have away.
This teaching of Jesus emphasizes that many of the most valuable things in our life are not things that we have earned or paid for. Have we earned our health? Have we paid for our family and friends? Have we created our sense of humor, our ability to understand, our sense of compassion? No, all of these things are free gifts, things that we have received without any kind of payment. Jesus says that if we want to be happy we need to find a way of giving those gifts back. “You have received without payment, give without payment.”
So what the gospel challenges us to do is to identify what are the gifts that I have been given and then to find a way of giving that gift to someone else. Perhaps you have developed professional skills in medicine, law, or business. What are you doing to see that that skill not only benefits you and your family, but others who need it? Perhaps you are a person that is able to listen, to connect with other people. What can you do to use that gift not only to build your own relationships, but to deepen the lives of others? Perhaps you are someone who can work with your hands, to build something useful. Are you passing that skill on? Perhaps you are a creative person, a person who can imagine ideas and possibilities that others cannot see. How do you use that creativity to bring beauty and hope into the world?
The gifts of God are given in abundance. There is not one person here today who has not received a gift. All of us have received something from God without any cost or payment. The Gospel today invites us to identify what is the gift we have received and then to listen to the teaching of Jesus. “The gift you have received, give as a gift.” That teaching is not an obligation. Jesus is not placing some burden upon us. Jesus is showing us the way to happiness, the way to life.