Opening the Word: Giving in excess

Stinginess is a mark of a fallen world. We’re stingy with goods, refusing to share everything with the poor. We’re stingy with prayer, bypassing divine worship for emailing or meetings. We’re stingy with our time, refusing to share a life of fellowship with the lonely.

We’re stingy through and through. Such stinginess is a problem, and not simply because it’s not proper to be so stingy. It’s a problem because it reveals a heart hardened by sin, refusing to trust in God. And in order to receive salvation, we must give up this stinginess.

The widow in 1 Kings is not stingy. Although poor, having no source of income from a husband, she interrupts her daily work by responding to Elijah’s request for water. Not only that, but she takes the little bit of flour that she was saving for a mouthful of bread for her son and makes a cake for Elijah. She uses her flour on that which may seem superfluous, in excess.

And yet, the flour did not empty out. The oil did not run dry. And for a year, they had infinite flour and oil. This small act of sacrifice, this refusal to be stingy, is rewarded by God.

In the Gospel of Mark, we see another widow. Unlike the scribes, who wander around looking for a place of honor, who give money in order to attract wondrous awe from onlookers, the poor widow gives everything. She gives her two coins, trusting that God will give more.

As our Lord Jesus Christ notices, “… she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her livelihood” (Mk 12:44).

The scribes give from surplus. The widow gives in excess.

Giving in excess is at the heart of Christian life. Such excessive giving is not reducible to an ethical claim — good people give lots — but is grounded in the sacrifice of Jesus. For as we hear in Hebrews, Jesus Christ “has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice” (Heb 9:26).

Jesus’ sacrifice is everything.

In his incarnation, he sacrifices his omnipotence in love, the Word becoming a speechless infant.

In his ministry, he sacrifices divine prerogative by entering into the history of men and women suffering from sin and death.

On the cross, he gives away all his power, taking upon himself the worst that men and women can throw at him. He gives all.

On the third day, he is raised from the dead. Sacrificial love wins. And now, he sits at the right hand of the Father. He offers this heavenly offering of love unto the end before the throne of the Father, making this love available to us here and now.

A love in excess.

This excessive, sacrificial love is to mark the identity of the Church. The Church is not a non-profit that tries to “do good” in the world. The Church is instead the communion of men and women who have received the excessive love of a God who deplores scarcity.

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Out of this gift of boundless, limitless love, the members of the Church must give everything over into the hands of God — money, power, prestige, privilege — and rely entirely on the sacrificial love of the Word made flesh.

In the United States, perhaps this is the hard lesson that the Church, including her leaders, are learning.

The only power that is worth pursuing is total, self-emptying love.

The Church needs to learn once more to be excessive.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.