August 12, 2020

The “Look At Me!” Offering: Trying To Hear What Jesus Says About Public Compassion

I miss the old days. If I’m saying that, you know that the birthdays are piling up, right? But I do. I miss the old days.

What old days? The old days when you weren’t obligated to tell everyone how much you cared, how much you were doing for whomever is less fortunate than you, and all the ways you are helping out. The old days when talking about how generous and compassionate you were was considered bad taste. Those days when it wasn’t considered trendy and appealing to have a list of charities appended to everything you do, and when volunteering your time or donating your treasure was something you did without photographers in tow. (See Sean Penn for details.)

We–Americans and American Christians–have become annoying braggarts. No….”annoying” isn’t the right word. It’s past annoying. We’ve left “unlikable,” and at least as this behavior is now taking over politics, the meter is wavering between “insanely egotistical” and “dangerously irresponsible.”

I have a sermon series of simple things Jesus said to do–or not do–that we just ignore. This falls right into the category of exhibit A.

Matthew 6:2-4 Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This passage, when studied closely in the Greek, actually means that, despite what it seems to be saying, it’s entirely consistent with Jesus to have your denominational public relations outfit keep a constant stream of articles going telling everyone exactly how much money you’ve raised and spent, and how many meals, houses and bottles of water you’ve purchased. In fact, you can even mention that you are doing more than anyone else. Just do it humbly.

Even though the passage seems to be discouraging this sort of thing, it’s become more than acceptable to spend lots of time promoting how much your church is doing for missions, disasters and the poor. Our cup runneth over with all the news of all we’re doing. If the tune we’re supposed to be playing is the modesty recommended by Jesus, then the sound of all this caring is becoming distinctively grating. It’s not just descriptive anymore; it’s preemptive. It’s covered in a fresh coat of fear that we won’t sound like we care enough, and someone might criticize us for being hard-hearted and stingy.

Much of this behavior seems to be post 9-11, and has intensified with the media focus on disaster relief. There are some things to celebrate about all this, such as the rise in volunteerism and the demonstration that private responses are far more efficicent than government responses. But there is another side as well–the side that transforms true charity into another form of competition.

As the President made the announcement this week that he was spending several billion dollars in advance to show how much America cares about a highly unlikely future outbreak of “bird flu,” and as Congress prepares to figure out a way to pay for all of the mega-billion-dollar “caring” the federal government has undertaken for people who live near oceans and beaches, it started to dawn on me that many of these people are more afraid than compassionate. They are afraid to be caught not caring enough. They are afraid some politician will tell Geraldo the latest conspiracy theory blaming THEM for the hurricanes. So they are spending money right now, as fast as possible, so they can hold press conferences and defend themselves from media parasites, Democrats and liberals who will say “You don’t care enough!”

We now have people who can effectively intimidate normal adults with the threat of criticizing them for not handing billions of dollars over to the Red Cross. They can, actually, run entire organizations, even countries with a form of compassion terroism. If politicians aren’t all in New Orleans handing out water, they won’t be elected. Where is Calvin Coolidge when we need him?

Did you notice we now really need the President to go to disaster sites and hug people? Thanks, Bill Clinton, for that little addition to the duties of Presidents. We need him to go and show he cares. Hug and hand out a check like the family won a major award. I read where one liberal columnist was upset that Condi Rice was in New York going to the theater during one of the hurricanes. Why wasn’t she somewhere caring? Why weren’t the Secretary of State and the President down in New Orleans, driving buses or something?

What are these people thinking? And why would anyone pay attention to this kind of rubbish? I’ll tell you why. As a culture, we’re suddenly afraid of “not caring.” It’s a cultural development that has extended everywhere and into everything. Pretty soon you won’t be able to buy a fast food hamburger without knowing you are supporting after-school programs somewhere. In fact, every hit on this web page allows me to make a donation to a program to buy socks for employees of Mississippi casinos who find themselves out of work.

I’ve even caught myself humming this tune. Our students and staff held a silent dessert auction and raised a bunch of money for tsunami relief last year, and even more for the hurricane relief effort this year. It’s amazing how quickly this little charity became really easy to blog about, talk about, write about, brag about….I mean, hey, we’re Christians…look how much we care. We raised _________ dollars. The school gave as much to the hurricane as a couple of families spend on vacations every year.

I’m not being cynical, and I don’t have a case of “wretched urgency,” I promise. I simply don’t want to start believing Jesus didn’t know something we all need to know. He did. You can be enslaved to money in more ways than you think, and taking pride in your generosity, your numbers, your offerings and your compassion–as measured in dollars–is one of them.

We live in a culture where celebrities spend at least ten days a month going to awards shows and awards dinners where they give each other awards for giving as much to AIDS in Africa as they spent on Pepsi products last year. We live in a culture where you can’t watch a major sporting event without announcements of charities and community funds peppering the silence between pitches. We live in a culture where being personally told by Bono that we need to wipe out poverty in this generation is a sign that you’ve arrived. We live in a culture where people will listen to talks about U.N. programs to end poverty and disease and not laugh. We’re far gone.

Jesus said we weren’t to live by the announcement of our good works, but by our faith. He made it clear that the faithful man is generous to the poor….and doesn’t have it on a bumper-sticker, t-shirt and coffee mug. There are times and places to talk about what money we’ve raised, what we’ve spent and what our volunteers have done. There is a time to rejoice and celebrate. But when we are really just promoting our church as “caring and compassionate”–as compared to all those other churches down the street–or engaging in another form of political spin, something is wrong.

I miss the days when we were a bit less prepared to have a parade in our own honor. We’ve become a culture that continually finds new ways to talk about ourselves, and what we are saying is heavily weighed toward assuring ourselves that we, our government, our Wal-Mart, our megachurch and our children are all amazingly generous and compassionate.

Is it possible Jesus knew that the tendency to talk about our good works makes it a lot more difficult to talk about our sinfulness? Did he understand that false humility is a dandy cover-up for the brokenness of our lives? If we take the story of the Good Samaritan and turn it into a way to not talk about our Prodigal Son story, we’re out of balance.

A story. I was at a meeting of associated Baptist churches in a community here in southeast Kentucky, and the moderator of the meeting suprised most (not all) of the pastors present with the announcement that every church’s hurricane relief offering would be taken that night, with the amount announced by the pastor right there in the meeting, and the check brought forward to be given to the treasurer publicly. It was about as much of an “I don’t care if Jesus did say it, we’re not doing it” moment as I’ve ever seen.

These pastors were caught in the crossfire of real Christian humility and the temptation to brag it up on the spot. They all wanted to say, “Our church cares about hurricane victims,” but not all had taken offerings. Not all of the offerings were knock-your-socks-off. Some clearly stood up and just said a large amount that they were confident they could raise, and they looked good for the moment. Some were honest and brought small checks. Some said, “We will take the offering later,” and said nothing. Good for them.

I was fascinated by the purpose of this exercise. It showed me how easy it has become to make our giving a good work that is announced rather than seen (as Jesus commanded, by the way.) Was this any measure of who really cared? Of who had actually given to the relief effort? (No one had required the members of these churches to give to only this particular offering.) Or was it a way to publicly promote the generosity of Baptists by creating the pressure to announce to the world how much they cared? Was it a surrender to ambition disguised as compassion?

I’d like to suggest we take a look at this very worldly way of reducing “caring and compassion” to numbers and dollars…and not stop doing any of it. In fact, do more, joyfully and with hilarity. Just brag about it, announce it, promote it and promote it a lot less. Take Jesus seriously. Live by faith, not by numbers. Let your Father see the ledger, and keep the focus off of what you and I can do that makes people say, “Oh…..that’s sooo sweet.”

Part of my job is to go out and convince people to give money to our ministry. I want to say a lot of positive things about what we do, and it has been a challenge to find ways to do that without bragging, putting others down or amplifying our stewardship and obedience into direct disobedience of Jesus. I’m still working on this, but I believe Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about. There is a difference between Christian humility and doormat self-loathing on the one hand, and worldly, arrogant bragging (and lying via exaggeration) on the other.

The righteous man in the Old Testament was known for his generosity. It’s there in the Psalms. Job could talk about his generosity if the occasion called for it. God’s definitions of justice and peace are right there in the Old Covenant scriptures, but isn’t it interesting how they are couched:

Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

It was Jesus who gave these surprising grade cards:

Revelation 3:17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

Luke 21:2-3 and he also saw a very poor widow dropping in two little copper coins. He said, “I tell you that this poor widow put in more than all the others.

Let’s find a way to be generous, compassionate and caring without talking about it all the time.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Of course, to do it, we’d have to look at things the way Jesus did, and not the way some growth guru or advertising meister looks at it. We’d have to admit the material corruption of the culture extends right into the way we talk about all kinds of things. We’d have to consider that some of our “thankfulness and gratitude” is a way to blow that trumpet Jesus talked about.

We’d have to join Jesus’ upside down Kingdom, where the praise of people–even the compassion police and people who care–is not anywhere close to the praise of God. We’d have to be like those servants who, having done everything, still weren’t interested in being praised.

It would mean we’d be enjoying our freedom in Christ in a way we’re being tempted to NOT enjoy it now.

Comments

  1. Michael,

    You offer up an accurate analysis here. Within the church I currently serve, leadership is constantly trying to communicate its charitable works, mission trips, etc. to the people (members and passers-by) out of fear that they don’t think we’re “doing enough” in our ministries. In this situation, leaders are not so much driven by what you call the “fear of not caring” as much as a “fear of APPEARING not to care.” And so, we brag about works and contributions (10 minutes of video testimony in yesterday’s service about our $100K donation to plant a church 8 miles from here) not so much b/c we care about church planting, but because we’re afraid that many people think we’re doing enough, so we spend time in worship to God talking about ourselves.

    Additionally, churches like the one I serve in depend upon on these moments for PR, advertising, etc. Our web site, publications, etc. are dated and unattractive, and rather than compete with area churches in the field of marketing, we talk on and on about all the money we’re giving and works we’re doing. Thanks for your helpful thoughts in our struggles associated with these issues.

  2. I have mixed feelings about this.

    WRT politics and public figures: On the one hand, I’m totally with you on the politicians doing media events to show they care. Really, if GWB wants to build houses for the homeless, take a page from Jimmy Carter and do it after he leaves office. Right now not only is it not the best use of his time, but the security and media circus following him is probably getting in the way of accomplishing much. OTOH, I don’t buy blaming the liberals for this. If he didn’t appoint incompetent cronies to run his administration’s disaster relief agency, maybe he wouldn’t need to do penance in the form of putting on a media blitz to ‘prove he cares’. Plus, it’s a little too obvious that the whole thing is about making him look better rather than about actually helping people. (Same for most politicians and celebrities, and sadly, churches).

    But, there’s another side imo. There used to be a sense that those who had much had some obligation to use it to benefit the society that allowed them to reach that level of acheivement. My mother works in the ‘dept of begging for money’ at a small sub-ivy league university. Because of this university’s mission-based roots, they provide a high level of scholarships for students coming from developing countries. Her boss of many years was very effective at soliciting donations. Why? Because she came from old money herself and would approach donors not hat-in-hand or by trying to guilt them into giving or by trumping the univ’s good works. She simply came to them with the attitude that they had a sort of noblesse oblige by virtue of their positions and she was there to help them fulfill their role as members of the upper levels of society.

    You see, our society has never been good at walking the Via Media, and so we swing back and forth between extremes. For decades now, ‘greed is good’ and ‘what’s in it for me?’ have held sway. Where there used to be an unspoken expectation that those with much would give something back, since the 80s there has increasingly been the attitude that it’s everyman for himself and it would be wrong (somehow akin to socialism) to expect those who benefit most from living in our society to give anything back to it. And so now there’s a backlash and like all backlashes it swings too far and upsets the system even more. In this case, it takes the form expressing being fed up with the self-centeredness of wealthy do-nothings by demanding charity – in highly visible ways – to buy social acceptance/approval. (And despite your claim that the phenomenon is driven by ‘liberals’ you’ll notice that it is liberal celebrities are most held hostage to it.) Also, like most backlashes, it also has salutory effects in that it makes compassion and generosity important values again, and so provides an antidote to the prior ‘who ever dies with the most toys, wins’ attitude.

    Now this plays out esp. in churches that have spent mega-bucks building themselves into mega-churches and in denominations that have tied their identity too closely to culture (either by emulating it or actively fighting it). Afterall, if a Christian institution is perceived as spending most of its funds on making its own life more pleasant and comfortable, it is are definitely (and rightly) laying itself open to criticism. You can’t effectively have humility in charity if you don’t practice humility in other areas of your public image.

  3. I think the link to the following sign says it all:
    Tither