Is generosity wise? How many of us, if asked to describe the behavior of the widow who dropped her last two copper coins into the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44), would call her “wise”? What if we removed the story from its biblical setting and saw it unfold in our own day? Say, for example, we saw an unmarried woman without any kind of income or insurance dropping what was literally her last dollar into a Salvation Army bucket. Is there any chance that we would describe such behavior as wise? Isn’t it far more likely that we would find the woman’s decision disturbingly imprudent? Wouldn’t we be tempted to assume that we now understand the reason for her poverty? If we think we are wiser than the widow in Mark 12, whose extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity, our economic assumptions about “prudence” need to be reevaluated according to the Bible’s wisdom for our wealth—much of which can be found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs.
Almost surprisingly, Proverbs is positive and even enthusiastic about the goodness of wealth. In her appeal to make all mankind come to her, Lady Wisdom calls out, “With me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity” (Proverbs 8:18). Moreover, Proverbs also encourages people to make money—even lots of it. Such passages about wealth and richesremind us that they were created by God himself to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and he therefore deems human industry and wealth creation to be good, too. This goes back to the fundamental task of stewardship and cultivation that God gave Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Similarly, Deuteronomy 8:18 tells us to “Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” And Proverbs even goes so far as to say, “The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it” (Proverbs 10:22). So, while Proverbs teaches that the value of wealth has very real limitations (Proverbs 11:4), the author’s reason for teaching that generosity is wise is not that wealth is bad and therefore must be gotten rid of like an economic hot-potato. No, Proverbs teaches that generosity is wise for positive reasons of its own:One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed. People curse the man who hoards grain, but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell
- (Proverbs 11:24-26).
He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done
- (Proverbs 19:17).
A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor
- (Proverbs 22:9).
He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses
- (Proverbs 28:27).
Often we think of generosity as an unfortunate obligation that leads to personal loss. But here, in the verses above, Proverbs speaks of giving as an opportunity for gain. Generosity is profitable. This fact may collide with worldly wisdom and seem paradoxical to those of us who believe that a tight fist rather than an open hand will lead to financial security. However, Proverbs goes to considerable lengths to show this attitude of stinginess to be an impoverishing lie. In fact, as commentator David Hubbard notes, when Proverbs speaks of giving freely or “scattering” (Proverbs 11:24, KJV), it is talking about generosity of the most radical sort. Hubbard points out that this kind of giving does not suggest “tidiness, care, or caution. ’Scattering’ here means distributing widely, generously, perhaps brashly, and paying little attention to where the beneficence goes” (David Hubbard, Proverbs, 166). This is the kind of action and attitude which Proverbs tells us will lead to blessing.
Of course, all of this talk about radical generosity raises some difficult questions. Given what has been said, are we then to assume that the widow who gave freely in Mark 12 gained even more? Are we to assume that she prospered as a result of her generosity? This is an important question, and there are two aspects to the biblical answer, both of which need to be considered carefully if we are to understand what the Bible teaches about the wisdom of generosity.
First, we must take the book of Proverbs and its original context very seriously. Proverbs 11:26 describes generosity that takes place in a concrete—and quite literal—marketplace situation and then compares the benefits of generosity with the impoverishing consequences of greed. Accordingly, there is no reason for us to think that the rewards of generosity are not concrete or literal (consider the story of Joseph and the sale of Egypt’s grain in Genesis 41:56; 42:4 as a real life example). We should not automatically “spiritualize” words like “wealth” and “prosperity” when we read them in the book of Proverbs. Instead, it is right to assume that Proverbs is saying what it sounds like it’s saying: “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty” (Proverbs 11:24).
Still, if we are going to take the book of Proverbs and its original context seriously, we must also recognize that these verses ought not to be taken as promises but as principles or general truths. A proverb is not a prophecy with a money-back guarantee. Proverbs teaches the principles that we need in order to live wisely in the world. And this wisdom is built upon the foundational belief that the Creator God—being both wise and generous—fashioned the very foundations of the world in wisdom (Proverbs 3:19-20) and by extension, generosity. Because of this created order, it is generally true that generosity leads to physical life and material prosperity just as greed leads to poverty and decay. And yet, sin twists the system and makes the created order wrench and writhe under sin’s decay (Romans 8:22). And the upheaval caused by sin introduces exceptions to created norms. So, for example, in light of sin, poverty often comes as a result of injustice. We are warned of this in Proverbs 13:23: “A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.”
Second, we must not only consider Proverbs’ context and perspective in answering our question of whether the poor, generous widow prospered. We must also try to understand how this perspective connects with the rest of what God’s word says about the wisdom of generosity as a whole. For the Bible goes to considerable lengths to affirm and expand upon the wisdom of generosity that is spoken of in Proverbs. Scripture has much to say about the wisdom of generosity:Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely…”
- (Psalm 112:5).
Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again”
- (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”
- (Luke 6:38).
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted …”
- (Luke 12:33).
Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life”
- (1 Timothy 6:18-19).
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously”
- (2 Corinthians 9:6).
… As it is written: “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever”
- (2 Corinthians 9:9).
So, while Proverbs teaches that generosity is wise from a material perspective in light of the way God fashioned the foundations of the world, it is also true that generosity is wise at a far deeper level—especially when it leads to sacrifice.
Ultimately, the deep paradox of the wisdom of generosity can be understood only through the so-called foolishness of the cross. Was the widow unwise when she gave away the last two copper coins on which she had to live? Would it be imprudent for us to follow her example as individuals? Only if Christ were foolish when he gave himself away on the cross. Those who want to be wise cannot be more prudent than the crucified Lord. To live like Jesus died requires sacrificial giving. Yet we should remember that this wisdom is more than mere command. Sacrificial generosity is a test of true faith and love (2 Corinthians 8:8; 1 John 3:16-19) which affords the opportunity to show that we have embraced Wisdom—“the foolishness of the cross.” “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Accordingly, before we give, we should cheerfully consider the boundlessness of the gifts the Lord has given us—for if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what we have, not according to what we don’t have (2 Corinthians 8:12).
Related Passages: Genesis 1:31; 41:56; Deuteronomy 8:18; Psalm 112:5; Proverbs 3:19-20; 8:18; 10:22; 11:4, 24-26; 13:23; 19:17; 22:9; 28:27; Ecclesiastes 11:1; Mark 12:41-44; Luke 6:38; 12:33; Romans 8:22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 3:18-20; 2 Corinthians 8:8, 9, 12; 9:6, 9; 1 Timothy 6:18-19; James 1:5; 3:13; 1 John 3:16-19