Dan Popp
Christian giving
By Dan Popp
September 22, 2011

For God so loved the world, that He gave....

I've written more than a few times about what Christian giving is not. So it seems incumbent on me to explain what I think Christian giving is. When we explore the New Testament with this specific question in mind, we come away with some principles that may surprise many of us — including believers. This article begins a short series on what makes Christian giving, "Christian." How do Jesus and His apostles teach His followers to give; and how does this differ from our culture's view?

To start, let's look at the well-known account of the woman who poured that really expensive perfume on Jesus. Matthew (26:6-13), Mark (14:3-9) and John (12:1-8) all record the story in very similar words. I'll quote from Mark, using the NASB.

    And while He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head. But some were indignantly remarking to one another, "Why has this perfume been wasted? For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they were scolding her.

    But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me. For the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good; but you do not always have Me. She has done what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for burial. And truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done shall be spoken of in memory of her."

John's gospel identifies the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. He also reveals that Judas was the spokesman for the disgruntled disciples, adding parenthetically, "Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it." (John 12:6)

"Three hundred denarii" was about a year's wages for a laborer. So if you're a blue-collar worker fortunate enough to be employed, recall your total income last year. That's the value of this vial of perfume. This and other clues tell us that Lazarus and his sisters were rich, or at least "comfortable." Contrary to what you may have heard, it seems that some of Jesus' best disciples were affluent.

The first principle we should notice from this passage is that Christian giving is centered on Christ. That seems very trite and religious — sorry about that. What I mean is that not only does all giving flow from Christ and back to Him; but Jesus, and no one else, has the authority to tell one of His people how to give. You can see right away that we're never going to be able to align this principle with a state-centered, coercive, anti-theist view of giving.

Judas and others were absolutely upside-down. They saw the wealth of the giver on the one hand, and the need of the poor on the other, and presumed a moral imperative to redistribute. Who they didn't see, was Jesus. Theirs was the view of the natural man, Man 1.0, the person without a Center. To him or her, "need" automatically imposes a demand on the "surplus" of "those who have benefited most." They went so far as to say that something given directly to Christ was "wasted!"

Not so fast, says the Lord. Your premise is false, your view is superficial. Only if there is no eternity and no deity does your kind of charity make sense. If all good gifts come from God (James 1:17); then God has the first and only claim on our giving!

Mary wasn't responding to a demand. There was no duty being discharged when she broke that vial. She gave because her heart was overflowing with gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother from the dead. She gave because of love, she gave because of joy, she gave because she couldn't stop herself.

I find it interesting that, in Mark's account, Jesus doesn't merely tell these critics to "Let her alone." He asks, "Why do you bother (trouble, annoy, embarrass) her?" Good question. Maybe because their own contributions suddenly looked like donations of used underwear. I'm no psychologist, but I think the disciples tried to make Mary feel small because her gift had shown their true spiritual height — and they were humiliated.

Each believer is going to get unique instructions on giving. The Holy Spirit didn't tell Andrew to buy expensive perfume and anoint Jesus with it. He didn't tell Peter to sell his fishing boats and give to the poor. But other individuals did get those instructions. Now, if the effect of Christian giving is that everyone gives differently, that means that it isn't subject to law. All laws, divine and human, deal in very broad strokes. In law there are only two categories — legal and illegal — and the same rules apply to everyone. That's not at all what Mary is engaged in.

The Iscariot contingent saw need, but missed Christ. They misperceived that charity was about law, not about love. When they smelled the sweet aroma of true giving, it turned their faces red with shame. They then tried to pass off their indignity as indignation. They, the little givers, crawled up into the Judge's seat, and with their puny voices squeaked out their sentence on the big giver.

In short, they acted like "progressives."

Who is the Central Planner in this story? Who is the one who thought that all giving should go through one money box — the money box he controlled? The people in the Bible who crave centralized human power are the faithless, the usurper, the traitorous, the murderous and the malevolent: Israel when it demanded a king. Herod. Judas. The mob that screamed, "We have no king but Caesar — crucify Him!" The Antichrist.

To conclude briefly, "For the poor you always have with you" shows that "ending poverty" is not a realistic goal, however sweetly the con men promise it. "And whenever you wish, you can do them good" indicates that Jesus' kind of giving is voluntary — we give as we "wish." Finally, "but you do not always have Me" takes us back to where we began. Christian giving is centered on Christ. It is motivated by love, unique to each person, and received as worship. In this kind of giving, real giving, the state can have no part.

"For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things." (Rom. 11:36a)

© Dan Popp


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