We’ve all heard it said that we reap what we sow. Usually this is said with a negative connotation. If we treat others badly, we can expect to be on the receiving end of some unkindness. Or if we do a shoddy job of building something, we can expect it to fall apart.
But there is a very positive side to this principle as well. We hear in today’s epistle reading that if we sow bountifully, we can expect to reap bountifully. It makes sense. If you’re planting a garden and you throw one or two seeds into the dirt, you can’t expect much of a harvest, compared to the one you would expect from a whole bag of seeds.
Likewise, when we sow our material offerings to God, we reap spiritual blessings. And a more abundant offering can correspond to a more abundant return. This turns out to be an especially good deal for us, because we trade what’s worth less for what’s worth infinitely more. What are a few dollars, or a few minutes of my time, or a little effort on my part, compared to the infinity of joy and blessings God desires to give us?
Of course this isn’t magic, though. I can’t expect to live in a rotten, self-centered way, and then throw a dollar at a beggar, and have all my rottenness covered by that dollar. Or for that matter, the same is true even if I donate enough money to build 5 churches and feed an army of beggars. We don’t buy God’s forgiveness, and real repentance in our hearts is a necessary ingredient, like soil needs fertilizer and moisture to be productive. Completely dry sand won’t yield much of a crop, even with a truckload of seeds.
The point about the giving that St. Paul is making really has nothing to do with the dollar amount. And it’s not about some kind of one-to-one ratio or formula, as if for every dollar or every minute of my time I contribute, I get one spiritual brownie point. Rather, it is simply that God is calling us to be people who are givers.
The point is that God is the greatest giver of all, and, as His children, we are to be givers, too. As people made in His image and likeness, we should have the deep desire in our hearts to offer ourselves and our lives as a gift back to God, and as a gift on behalf of others. It’s what we say in the Liturgy: “Offering unto Thee Thine own of Thine own, on behalf of all and for all.”
This kind of offering that we are talking about means that we are to give freely, from our hearts, without being stingy; not reluctantly, or under compulsion. God “loves a cheerful giver,” St. Paul says. He loves it when we give freely, with joy. He doesn’t want us to give because we feel forced or coerced. He wants a spontaneous gift, a gift that comes from our gratitude to Him.
This word cheerful is “ilaron” in Greek. We get the English word “hilarious” from this Greek word. But the older meaning of hilarious was actually closer to ilaron; not funny, but joyful, merry, light-hearted. This is what God wants - a “hilarious” giver; a merry giver. Someone who delights in giving. Because God delights in giving to us, and He loves to see His children doing the same.
God is able to bless you in abundance so you have all you need for every good work. There’s never any lack for God. So we, who are His children, should not be afraid of any lack. We should not be afraid that God’s gifts and blessings will ever run out. He’ll give us what we need, and especially if we freely give what we have, He’ll give us an abundance, more than we need to share freely with others.
In Exodus chapters 35 & 36 we hear how God directs Moses to ask for free will offerings to build and furnish the Tabernacle. People start bringing whatever they freely would like to contribute. They bring more and more, and soon Moses realizes it’s more than they need. They tell the people to stop bringing gifts, because they have plenty to complete the Tabernacle, and then some.
This is a good problem to have. And it’s what happens when you have a community of cheerful givers. Imagine if the whole world were full of cheerful givers, no one being stingy or selfish, no one hesitating to share whatever he has with others in need. It would be paradise.
God is asking us as His children, in fact, to spread paradise everywhere around us. True, it won’t be revealed fully until we meet the Lord in glory. But already now, we can participate in the Kingdom within us, the Kingdom in our midst as Christians, and in drawing others into the radiant life of that Kingdom.
We do this by spreading thanksgiving to God. St. Paul says God will enrich us “in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” We are to “produce”, or “bring about,” thanksgiving, which is “eucharist” in Greek. Our cheerful giving allows others to be eucharistic, to give thanks to God. We spread gratitude by our free, joyful giving. We share the gift of Eucharist with the world when we live in such a way that those around us are inspired to say “Thank you” to God.
Non-free, non-joyful, self-pitying, self-congratulating giving doesn’t produce a eucharistic response. It doesn’t lead to thanksgiving. It doesn’t cultivate joy and gratitude in others, or in ourselves. It’s sad giving.
That’s not what we want. God forbid. Orthodox Christianity is nothing if it’s not generous, hospitable, full of love for those around us, offering forgiveness and healing to a broken, sinful world. We want the world to see that in us. Is that what the world sees? When the world looks at us does it see joyful, cheerful, merry, light-hearted, hilarious givers who proclaim the Resurrection by their generous spirit? Or does it see gloomy “christians” doing their “christian” duty because they have to, and not very happy about it?
And what do we do if we feel like we’re just not as joyful as we should be but we want to be? We have to remember that the way to go up - all the way up - is first to go down - all the way down. We humble ourselves in repentance, and we follow the way of the Cross that leads to the death of our ego, the death of our selfishness. And then, God grants the resurrection of joy. We’re not talking about “fake it till you make it.” A joyful Christian, is a Christian who knows the secret of repentance that sets us free. As the monastic saying goes, “if you see a brother who is gloomy, he hasn’t wept enough during the night.” Real repentance leads to real freedom; and the one who experiences real freedom can’t help but be joyful and thankful. So this is the path we must take.
As we heard in today’s Gospel, God Himself is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. God is generous to everyone, always. We are to follow that example, repenting of our ingratitude and selfishness, and becoming children who resemble their Father. Just as God’s mercy and generosity to us inspires us to grow in gratitude to God and be healed of our selfishness, so by our merry, joyful, “hilarious” giving, we may inspire others around us to forsake ingratitude and selfishness, and to join the ranks of the cheerfully giving children of the greatest Giver of all.