“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is the advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.”
From the very first line in the prologue of his Rule, Saint Benedict is showing his desire to call followers of Christ to a fullness of love and faith not through his own instruction or for his own personal glorification, but simply because he knows God loves them. Benedict understands that obedience to Christ is what gives us purpose and freedom. Benedict loved his fellow man and saw firsthand what is necessary for true joy. Abandonment of our own temptations and desires opens us up to give everything to God and experience a completeness that can only come from Him.
“The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.”
The Rule of Radical Generosity
Rule 1: Be not afraid
“Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
The world gives us plenty to fear. Death, poverty, disease, loneliness, abandonment, public speaking and even spiders is just a start to the list. It is a natural response in most any situation to consider what catastrophes could befall us as a result of our decisions. God gives us the feeling of fear to keep us safe. That said, fear can also prevent us from achieving fullness in life by paralyzing us from action.
When we are deciding exactly how generous we should be, it is natural to want to maintain control and hold our gifts and resources close. But how many times in life do people give away their last dollar. How many people laying on their deathbed would honestly regret spending too much time serving those in need? Fear can be a healthy protector but in matters of generosity, selfishness born out of fear never serves us well.
Tobit is even more direct in his instruction to us. Overcoming our fear and giving freely will bring blessings and treasure for us in eternity.
“Give in proportion to what you own. If you have great wealth, give alms out of your abundance; if you have but little, do not be afraid to give alms even of that little. You will be storing up a goodly treasure for yourself against the day of adversity.” (Tobit 4: 8-9)
Rule 2: Temperance and planning brings freedom
Over the years, many studies have been conducted on how many Americans plan out their spending with a budget. The numbers vary a bit depending on the year, the economy and the age of those surveyed, but the numbers consistently show that between 50 and 80 percent of Americans make and stick to a budget.
When those who do not budget have been asked why not, the majority of respondents stated that they don’t budget simply because they don’t feel like they make enough money. This is a crazy statement because it is precisely the people who feel stretched financially who would benefit the most from taking control of their finances and maximize its efficiency.
Budgeting your finances and practicing restraint in purchasing may sound restrictive but in reality, it offers freedom to make sure your needs are covered and keep you out of financial trouble later. Benedict talks about the dangers of overindulgence in Chapter 38.
“For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. Our Lord says: Take care that your hearts are not weighed down with overindulgence (Luke 21:34).”
Moderation allows us to live flexibly and control our behaviors and actions before we get into trouble. It puts us in control instead of transferring that control to our behaviors. Overindulging in spending puts us in debt to our creditors. Overindulging in alcohol puts our addiction in control of us. Overindulging in recreation takes away our time for productivity and constructive self-improvement.
We should treat the creation of a budget and temperance in spending as a gift from God to control our finances and be able to give more freely to God and to the needy.
Rule 3: Don’t aim for the minimum
In the Old Testament, there are a number of instructions to the Jews of how much they were to give back to God. After defeating his enemies in battle, Abram gave one-tenth of everything to the High Priest Melchizedek. “‘And blessed be God Most High who delivered your foes into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.” (Genesis 14: 20)
The book of Leviticus instructs the Jews to present a portion of their animals to the priests. “The tithes of the herd and the flock, every tenth animal that passes under the herdsman’s rod, shall be sacred to the Lord.” (Leviticus 27:32)
Today, this ten percent tithe is adopted by many Christians as what God instructs us to give to Him and to the church. In fact, many Catholics have adopted a further guide of this ten percent tithe by giving 5 percent to their local parish, 3 percent to their diocese and 2 percent to other charities.
None of these guides or targets are a bad thing to adopt. However, a practice of radical generosity calls us not to hit our ten percent tithe and then feel like we are done. The Catechism gives us a modern instruction to “assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.” There should not be a cap on our generosity, nor should there be a minimum. For those Catholics blessed with much in the way of financial wealth, more is expected of them as their “ability is greater.” The truth is that all of us have the ability to support the Church, the question is how much are we willing to give?
Rule 4: God multiplies
Perhaps the greatest example of God multiplying gifts comes from Matthew’s account of Jesus feeding the five thousand.
“When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” [Jesus] said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.”
In John’s account, these loaves and fishes were provided by a young boy. In truth, this boy was probably quite anxious about giving away his whole meal. Considering most boys don’t eat five loaves of bread, it’s possible that he was actually giving away food meant to feed his entire family. We should marvel at and aspire to the trust that this child had in Christ.
When God asks us to share our gifts freely, it is not so that he can deprive us and leave us empty-handed. It is for the expressed purpose of multiplying those gifts in ways that we could never accomplish if we keep them to ourselves.
Trusting in God and giving freely – whether it is our first fruits or last fish – requires faith. As with the five thousand though, radical generosity opens us up to have our faith multiplied and shared abundantly and beyond our wildest imaginations.
Rule 5: Expect nothing in return
“[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6: 1-4)
In this reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ instructs us in the manner in which we should give. Essentially, our reward for generosity will be in heaven, not on earth. Now, many churches and nonprofit organizations put excellent stewardship practices in place to thank their benefactors. Thank you notes, wall plaques and coffee mugs are nice, and recognizing donors and gifts can be powerful for building awareness for a project or charity, but Christ makes it clear that this should not be our motivation for giving. Tax incentives and public recognition does drive some giving, but Holy Donors rise above that.
Rule 6: You can’t take it with you
It was a common practice of the ancient Egyptians for the wealthy to be buried with their treasures. In fact, the most famous example of this practice was the tomb of Tutankhamun, King Tut as most of us know him. King Tut was Pharaoh for most of his short life until he died at the age of 19. In 1922, archeologists discovered his undisturbed tomb and the vast wealth that he was buried with. King Tut was found wearing a golden death mask, clutching golden bracelets, rings and collars, and buried inside of a golden coffin. All told, the value of King Tut’s buried treasure was somewhere in the realm of $650 million (in modern dollars). And the fact of the matter, despite being buried with all this wealth, King Tut entered the afterlife without any of it.
When considering how your wealth will be used after your life, do not “take it to your grave.” All of your earthly treasure does you no good in heaven.
Today, there are a plethora of ways that your money can be put to use. Consider establishing an estate plan or trust for the Church or charities you support, donate your real estate property or follow the example of billionaire, Chuck Feeney, and give it away before you die. Chuck was a successful entrepreneur who created a business empire of duty-free shops. Worth an estimated $8 billion, Mr. Feeney spent 38 years donating his treasure to schools, universities, hospitals, human rights causes and more. It is not difficult to make the case that Mr. Feeney’s wealth made a greater difference in the world than King Tut’s golden mask and coffin ever did.
Rule 7: Use your time wisely
A commodity that we all possess even more valuable than money is our time. According to the Social Security Administration, life expectancy for a 50 year old American male is 81.8 years. Broken down, that comes out to 982 months. Or 51,064 weeks. Or 29,877 days. Or even 717,048 hours.
God gives each of us unique gifts and talents. If you were to tithe a tenth of your life to God, that would be 71,704 hours of time given in service to the Church and your fellow man. How are you spending your hours? Are you using your unique talents in service to God and His Church? Could you give one more hour to God this week?
Rule 8: Model the way
“Command and teach these things. Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. Until I arrive, attend to the reading, exhortation, and teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate.” (1 Timothy 4: 11-14)
Generosity may be a character trait, but the practice of giving is a learned behavior. Much like discipline, work ethic, and restaurant tipping, developing a habit of giving must be taught to younger generations. This falls to family members, priests, teachers and others to model acts of kindness and generosity so that children and young adults will be witness to both the act and the joy of giving.
Holy Donors so often point to examples of faithful, consistent and joyful giving in their own lives. This does not always require extensive explanation, but rather the simple example will be its own lesson. Giving when the collection plate comes around. Explaining how your family budgets every month. Turning the sting of sacrifice into the elation of helping others. These are just a few examples of simple yet profound lessons that little ones are always observing and absorbing.
Rule 9: Be a cheerful giver
“Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9: 6-7)
A common sentiment from Holy Donors practicing radical generosity is that “Giving is fun!” Being able to make a difference through your generosity can fill your life with joy and fulfillment. This applies to gifts of time and talent just as much as money. When you are serving at the soup kitchen or organizing the middle school retreat check-in table, remember to smile. God is working through you in that moment, so be sure to give others a good impression of Him.
It’s like Jesus says on the Mount, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
If you are being a cheerful giver, leave your sackcloth at home and put on a happy face.
Rule 10: Resist making judgments
Holy Donors do not cast judgment on those who they are helping. If a person is in need, they step up to help. Keep in mind Benedict’s words, “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.”
Holy Donors also do not cast judgment on other donors. This can at times be even more difficult. It can be tempting to think, “I am giving so much and my neighbors don’t seem to be giving at all…but they can afford a new car.” These feelings can poison even the best of intentions and should be recognized as the thoughts from the devil and cast out immediately.
Generosity of spirit and generosity of “assuming the best in others” can be tough, but it should be something that we all aspire to in our lives.
Rule 11: Diversify your charitable portfolio
The righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:37-40
When you are looking for how to give, consider where your support can have an impact. Is your local parish financially secure? Is it an aging or shrinking population and reliant on more support from your family or is it a thriving and active parish with a healthy annual fund and cash reserve? If that is the case, would your support be put to more immediate use at other institutions?
Holy Donors, like savvy investors, are mindful of getting a good Return on Investment, or ROI, on their charitable dollars. Are you being called to help launch new initiatives? Can you “clothe and feed” the needy by supporting other nonprofit ministries? Can you provide a brighter future for young people by supporting scholarships or educational programs (and thereby setting them up to help others down the road)? Consider taking a look at the short- and long-term impact that your dollars are making and be intentional about spreading the wealth.
Diversifying your charitable portfolio can also be a strategy to engage your children in giving as well. Letting young children choose charities that appeal to them will instill in them an understanding of making an impact through generosity.
Rule 12: Give early and give often
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Matthew 19:14
If you want to pass along the practice of generosity and giving back to your children or youth in your life, start when they are young. Giving children money that they can decide how to give can be a powerful lesson regardless of their age. Some parents set up an allowance for this. Some parents invite them into their family budgeting process to help decide what they support. The important thing is that the more you can allow children to take ownership for their giving (and even their family’s giving), the more profound the lesson will be and the more likely it will stick with them for life.
Develop those habits when children are young and not only will they practice generosity throughout their lives, but they will grow deeper in their own faith and virtue. This makes it more possible that they will approach Jesus for their needs and identity now and long into their lives. In this way, teaching children to give back allows you to “let the children come to Christ.”
Rule 13: Get creative
Look for ways that you can be more creative in your generosity. As with many of these rules, there are no minimums or maximums. There is not only one way to give. Not one entity to donate to. Not one motivation to drive you. God blessed all of us with a unique mind and we should honor Him by using it to think outside the box of conventional philanthropy. Get creative and God will reward that and multiply your generosity.
As with all virtues, holiness is not attained in a day. Rather, holiness is a state that we enter into gradually over the course of our lifetime. Being a Holy Donor does not happen overnight as well. This Rule of Radical Generosity is simply a guide to get you started. And what better place to look than the Rule of Benedict for the perfect conclusion for this guide?
“Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them. Amen.”
God bless you and god bless all of us as we strive to become holy donors practicing radical generosity in service of God and his Church on earth.
This is also available through audio here.