I remember making that nerve-racking phone call.Me: “Mr. H., I have a question to ask you.” Mr. H. “Hold on. I think Mrs. H. better be on the other phone for this one.” Mrs. H. picks up the other phone. Me with trembling voice: “Okay. Mr. & Mrs. H., I would like to ask your permission to ask your daughter for her hand in marriage?” Mrs. H. “You only want her hand? What about the rest of her? Don’t you want all of her?”
Yep. That was my (now) mother-in-law’s quick-witted response to my nervous fumbling over how to ask them for their blessing on our plans to get engaged and married. “Don’t you want all of her?”
How do you respond to that?! I am sure I stammered out some sort of response – though even now, I’m not sure that it was even halfway intelligible – and they graciously helped me finish the conversation and gave us their blessing.
My mother-in-law’s question “Don’t you want all of her?” has stuck with me. And though the context is somewhat different, I have found myself reflecting on it quite a bit lately.
I recently had the opportunity to preach on the story in Acts 5 about Ananias and Sapphira both dropping dead as they attempted to lie to Peter about the size of their offering. They had sold some property that they owned and apparently agreed to tell the leaders of the early church that they had sold it for less than what they actually did. Some commentators point out that the original word for their decision to keep some of the money for themselves is “to embezzle.” Basically they got caught stealing from God. It’s quite a story.
One of the things that struck me about that passage is that it is closely tied to a story about Barnabas in the end of Acts 4. Barnabas sells some property and gives it to the church leaders to distribute as they see fit among the poor. The result, not just of Barnabas’ gift but of a whole community bent on using all their resources to meet each other’s needs, is “there were no needy persons among them.”
The outcomes are obviously different. But the real difference between Ananias and Sapphira on the one hand and Barnabas on the other is not the outcomes, or the type of gifts they give (both are proceeds from the sale of property), or even the size of their gifts (which are not mentioned), but the attitudes of their hearts. The money is not so much the issue. Rather, Barnabas gives freely, holding nothing back, and gains a reputation for being an encouragement in the early church. Ananias and Sapphira, however, give deceitfully, secretly holding back some of their intended gift for themselves. Instantly, their names are associated with deceitfulness and judgement.
At times, I wish this passage were simply about putting more money in an offering plate. “Ananias and Sapphira didn’t give enough. So give more.” The moralistic pull can be attractive, because it leaves us in control. God would be little more than a demanding, greedy task master whom we need to appeaze by giving a share of our money. We could predict and control God’s mood toward us simply through meeting the minimum requirements. Though burdensome and a miserable way to live, just giving God more money might in fact be the easy way out.
Rather, the challenge in these two stories is whether or not we will give our hearts and our minds – our orientation to the world – fully to God. Instead of coddling a self-protective posture, concerned with getting as much as we can for ourselves at the least amount of cost, these stories point to a God who calls us to embody the same generosity that God has lavished on us. One of the early Christian leaders invited the church into this way of living by writing “In your relationships with one another have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had.” (Philippians 2:5). The Barnabas character called for is one of generosity in which all that one has and is gets bent toward the good of others.
So where does my mother-in-law’s question come in? One of the metaphors used to describe the church is “the bride of Christ.” It seems to me that, too often, we act as if Jesus has only asked for our hand in marriage. We live as if God will be satisfied if we give him an hour or two on Sunday, or if we read a short devotional and offer a prayer over our meals, or if we surprise him by throwing in a few extra dollars int0 the offering plate. We fall into a pattern of giving God our handouts, rather than giving our whole life. We emphasize how it’s my time, my money, my resources….God can have what I don’t want or need.
But Jesus is not simply asking for our hand or our handouts – he’s wants all that we are. All that the whole church is. As Jesus summarized the expectation for those who follow him: “To love the Lord with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, Jesus is asking us to love God without holding back and to become the kind of neighbors to others that God has been to us.
As with marriage, I guess the real challenge comes in figuring out how to live out that whole life commitment. What might it look like to not hold back on our love for God? What might it look like to be as generous to our neighbors as God has been with us? What would change in us, in our churches, in our neighbors if we embodied God’s generous character as our way of life? Your thoughts?