THE EXCELLENT WAY, 4: PURE GIVING
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 4, 2016
Isaiah 53:1-9; Hebrews 11:32-12:3

“If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
1 Corinthians 13:3

Somewhere down on the Boardwalk, in one of the arcades, you’ll find a machine called the Love Tester. It’s a venerable old machine, designed with couples in mind.

Picture a couple of teenagers, down at the Boardwalk for a first date. They’re still checking each other out. “Could this person be someone I could love? Could this person even be… THE ONE?”

What each of them wouldn’t give to find the answer to such questions!

Well, as it so happens, the Love Tester offers an answer: for a very reasonable price. Put your money in, wrap your hand around the metal grip, and watch. Watch to see what lights up.

The classic version of the Love Tester machine is housed in an ornate wooden cabinet. Behind the glass is an ascending series of light bulbs. The ones at the bottom say, “Clammy. Harmless. Mild.” A little further up is, “Naughty, but nice.” Then comes the really sexy stuff. In order of hotness, it says, “Wild. Burning. Passionate. Hot Stuff.” Until you reach the top of the scale: “Uncontrollable.”

So, how do these things work? I looked it up online. Wikipedia is a wonderful thing. Some Love Tester machines measure how much the human hand conducts electricity. Sweaty palms are a definite plus. Others measure skin temperature. Still other models are completely random: they don’t measure anything at all. Whether you come out “Mild” or “Hot Stuff” is purely a matter of chance.

So, imagine our hypothetical young couple, down on the Boardwalk. The Love Tester machine is a total bust. It’s a scam, really. An “amusement” — at best, it gives you a few moments of entertainment.

But the Boardwalk offers other ways of testing your love. Like the games of skill or chance. Put down some money. Spin the wheel, or shoot the basketball through the hoop (the one that’s a little smaller than a normal basket). Do it well, and often, enough, and you’ll qualify to win that giant teddy bear. Surely this is a sign of your love. Everyone will see your beloved, staggering down the Boardwalk under the weight of that coveted prize, and will know how much you are in love!

There’s something appealing about measuring love, isn’t there? Deep in our hearts, we all wish we knew how to do that.

*****

As it so happens, in the third verse of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul offers a way — although it’s not as precise as some may wish. It has to do with giving: not a giant teddy bear, but rather with gifts that are far more consequential: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

This is a verse about sacrificial giving: giving that costs the giver dearly. Paul provides two examples of sacrificial giving here: giving away everything you own, and giving up your very life.

Let’s zoom in on the language of this verse.

The Greek word for giving, in “give away all my possessions,” is one that carries the sense of handing out a morsel of bread. You could say it means “doling out.” This giving away of possessions is not carried out in one fell swoop: by selling your house and goods, then writing a huge check that empties your bank account. It’s not a massive donation to the local hospital or food bank, to the Salvation Army or UNICEF. It’s giving away all you have, literally one bite at a time, maybe by volunteering at a soup kitchen. “If I dole out all my possessions to the poor” is what Paul’s saying, here.

Think of a person who lives that sort of lifestyle, a lifestyle of radical giving. Think of abandoning house and car and livelihood, reducing everything you own to cold, hard cash, then becoming a sort of Mother Teresa — going into the grittiest urban neighborhood, and personally, over the course of months or years, giving it all away to poor people, looking each one in the eye as you do it.

Wouldn’t that be a person who demonstrates perfect, Christlike love?

Not so fast, says Paul: because love does not consist in the act of giving away possessions. Sure, that sort of significant giving is often motivated by love, but it actually doesn’t have to be.

What if people undertook that sort of giving out of guilt? Or what if they did it to attract attention to themselves? Or what if they did it to somehow shame the recipients, to show them up as less-than-adequate human beings?

At least as a thought-experiment, Paul is entertaining the possibility that giving — even massive giving — can be done for the wrong reasons.

*****

Next, in the second part of the verse, Paul gives another example of a very specific and costly mode of giving. It just may be the most costly gift of all: what some have called “the supreme sacrifice.”

“If I hand over my body so that I may boast…” There’s been a lot of discussion, among Bible scholars, about how this part of the verse ought to be translated — and, I’m sorry to say, they’re pretty much evenly divided. If you became familiar with this passage in the King James Version, you learned it differently. You heard it as: “though I give my body to be burned.”

As it so happens, there are two Greek words, one that’s translated “so that I may boast,” and another translated “to be burned.” The words are virtually identical, except for two letters. Now, among all the ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament — all copies of the long-lost original — about half of them say “so that I may boast” and the other half say “to be burned.” Somewhere along the line, as the scribes created new copies of the scriptures by hand, there was a transcription error — and it got carried forward into all the copies subsequently made from that source. It’s all but impossible for the experts to decide which Greek word Paul actually used in his handwritten original, which no longer exists.

Either way, though, he’s talking about handing over his body. Whether it’s death by fire, or by some other means, it’s an act of martyrdom, of intentional self-sacrifice.

There’s a famous scene in T.S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral. The play is about the death of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1170. Becket was murdered in the cathedral on his way to prayers, by four knights of King Henry II. It’s a true story. It was a political assassination, done because the Archbishop had refused to go along with some things the King wanted him to do. Ever since his martyr’s death, Thomas Becket has been considered a saint of the church.

Anyway, in this scene, Becket sees the knights approaching, swords in hand, and realizes what’s about to happen to him: if he doesn’t give in and carry out the King’s wishes. He entertains the possibility that he may have more selfish motivations for giving up his life: such as enjoying the thought that he’ll be remembered, forever after, as a holy martyr. It’s here that Becket speaks this famous line:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
to do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Paul’s entertaining the possibility, here, that a person could give — even give extravagantly — but do it without love.

*****

You don’t have to look very far to find examples of people giving in less than loving ways: usually to obtain some kind of reward. It’s called a quid pro quo: “this for that.” Just think of those big gifts to universities that result in a building named after the donor. Now, maybe the donors were motivated only by love for their alma mater, or maybe it was at least as much about getting their name on the building. Who’s to say?

Then there are political campaign contributions. Now, maybe some of those gifts are given out of pure altruism, out of a desire to make the country better. Or maybe the donors think they’re buying influence. You’d have to search the heart of each one — and each politician, as well — to say for sure.

What about you? Is all your giving pure in motive?

Is there ever a time — in giving to the church, or to some other cause, or to a person in need — when you do it out of guilt?

It’s especially strange to give to the church for that reason, because the Christian gospel is all about grace and forgiveness, and getting a fresh start. In truth, it’s the anithesis of guilt.

Or maybe you give in order to gain a tax deduction, or to see your name memorialized on a plaque, or to respond to peer pressure (all my friends are writing checks, so I suppose I’d better do it too). These are not terrible motivations — clearly, there are benefits here that make us feel good in one way or another (and the gift certainly makes a difference) — but still, they fall short of what Paul considers the highest motivation: the motivation of love.

*****

Paul says here that, if he gives his wealth — or even his very life — for some reason other than love, he “gains nothing.” Now, the word “gain” is a little misleading as a translation, because he’s not talking about accruing some sort of benefit. The Greek is more accurately translated, “I accomplish nothing.” To Paul, there’s only one reason for giving — and all other motivations are not just second-tier; they’re irrelevant. The only reason to give is out of love. It’s the spiritual basis for giving.

If you want an example of that sort of giving, you need look no further than the Lord’s Table. “This is my body,” he says, “given for you. This is my blood, given for you.”

Given. At the heart of this sacrament is the act of giving. It’s a gift we haven’t earned, a gift we don’t deserve. The only way to explain such a powerful gift, such a sacrificial gift, is to call it what it is: a gift of love.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” You and I like to imagine ourselves as givers — and in fact that’s what we very often are — but let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not who we’ve always been. Before any of us had it in us to give anything to others, we first received. We received the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We received it as starving people reach for a crust of bread, as people dying of thirst accept a cool drink.

We accepted the gift as a pure and perfect offering, a gift of love. As you come to the Lord’s Table today, may you remember who you are, and do likewise.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.