Some months ago I read an intriguing news item on Reuters.com. Since this was picked up by other media outlets you may have come across it as well. The headline shouted, “Philanthropy Becoming New Status Symbol for Wealthy.”* It told the story of dozens of U.S. billionaires (and by now they have been joined by other international tycoons), the likes of Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, who pledged to give at least 50 percent of their net worth to charities and nonprofit foundations (either in their testament or during their lifetime). By February 2011, 58 billionaires had signed the pledge—conveniently archived at www.givingpledge.org.
The world oohed and aahed—and applauded. Billions of dollars will bolster international charities and foundations over the next decades. The point, however, that the Reuters piece was trying to make was this: public giving has become a trendy thing and status symbol for the rich and famous. Some like it hands-on and travel in their private jets (and lots of media in tow) to Darfur or Haiti to inaugurate an orphanage or deliver much-needed help. Others just sign the pledge (and, I imagine, a number of big checks). All in the public eye; all carefully orchestrated and willingly documented.
Neither you nor I will likely ever join that illustrious group on www.givingpledge.org. We just play in a different league, trying to make house payments, working hard to get our kids through Adventist education, and just grateful to have a job. But I wonder what drives me when I give and when I serve. What drives you?
Don’t get me wrong: I applaud the fact that this group of superrich people decided to return something to society and important causes. However, they are giving from an abundance that we cannot even fathom—or can you imagine 9 zeros after the number? How could one person (or family) ever spend this? When you have 100,000,000,000 dollars or euros, would it hurt to write a check for more than 50,000,000,000?
Let’s get away from these zeros. The Gospels tell a wonderful story, short and concise and to the point, that speaks volumes about what kind of attitude God looks for in our giving. You remember the widow who brought two small copper coins to the Temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44; cf. Luke 21:1-4)? Mark tells us that Jesus sat down to watch the public Temple treasury. He took time to watch the crowd give publicly, rich and poor, even though the rich had more to show. Since they did not write checks in those days, giving a larger offering meant carrying a fairly heavy bag full of silver or gold coins. Clink, it made, as some well-to-do Jew approached the box. Clink, clink, clink, it sounded, as the money dropped into the container. And everybody saw, and everybody heard. Jesus did. Somebody else approached the treasury. Her gait was slow and tired. She was poor. Her dress was shabby and marked her as a widow. Her two copper coins did not really make the clink sound.
Jesus’ pronouncement following this learning opportunity is surprising: she gave not from her opulence and abundance. She gave from her entire existence.
So what drives you as you give your tithe and offerings? What motivates you to volunteer time at a homeless shelter? What does my heart really say when I give and share and listen and encourage and hug and cry and—yes—open my bank account?
Jesus knows—as He did 2,000 years ago. It is motivation that counts—not zeros.
Gerald Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published March 17, 2011.