“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The famous story of the rich ruler in Luke’s gospel tells us why we give: to inherit eternal life.
The ruler approached Jesus to learn how to attain eternal life, insisting that he had followed all the commandments since his youth. Jesus then told him, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Unable to part with his possessions, the man went away sadly.
In the subsequent exchange with the onlookers and the disciples, Jesus did not mention the needs of the poor. Instead, Jesus emphasized the real reason for giving: the primary purpose of giving is to save the giver’s soul.
Pope Francis recently explained why: “Whenever material things, money, worldliness, become the center of our lives, they take hold of us, they possess us; we lose our very identity as human beings.” Pope Francis, Homily on Sunday, September 29, 2013. By giving in support of the kingdom of God, we reorient our lives to God as the center of our lives.
Of course, God does not need the money. God, being infinite, lacks nothing. If God needed more money, he could simply create it. Instead, he calls us to give for the sake of our own souls.
Does this mean that we can simply spend our way to heaven? No. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ and through baptism. See John 1:12-18 and Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶¶ 1987-1989. Our charitable giving is part of the cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom that is required to repent from our sinful nature and turn towards God’s kingdom. Cf. James 2:14-17. “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent.” Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶ 1993.
The theological foundation of Christian giving
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” 1 Corinthians 10:26 (quoting Psalm 24:1).
The world was here long before we arrived and will be here long after we are gone. In the movie Crocodile Dundee, Mike made an insightful observation: “See those rocks? Been standing there for 600 million years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So arguing over who owns them is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on.”
God made the world and so it belongs to him. As the Church prays every morning in the Invitatory:
The Lord is God, the mighty God,
The great king over all the gods.
He holds in his hands the depths of the earth
And the highest mountains as well.
He made the sea; it belongs to him,
The dry land too, for it was formed by his hands.
Indeed, Jesus Christ is above all creation because everything was created through him. “For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:16-17.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Matthew 5:3
We, as mere creatures, are stewards of all we possess. We don’t use the word “steward” in modern English very much anymore, so we often don’t understand the concept. A steward is akin to our modern concept of a trustee. The property held by a trustee is held for the benefit of another, the beneficiary. The trustee has possession, title, control, and discretion over the property, but the trustee is obligated to use the property in the interests of the beneficiary.
As stewards, we possess and control the things we “own”, but everything ultimately belongs to God. Even our bodies belong to God. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.
The Code of Canon Law formalizes our obligation to give for the spread of the God’s kingdom:
§1. The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for apostolic works and works of charity and for the decent sustenance of ministers.
§2. They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.
“The spirit of poverty and charity are the glory and witness of the Church of Christ.” Gaudium et Spes ¶ 88. Although the formal evangelical counsel of poverty is not binding on the laity, all are called to poverty in spirit — that due sense that everything belongs to God and we are his stewards. “In exercising their rights, the Christian faithful, both as individuals and gathered together in associations, must take into account the common good of the Church, the rights of others, and their own duties toward others.” Code of Canon Law, Canon 223, §1.
We will be held accountable for our stewardship. “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” 2 Corinthians 5:10. See also Romans 14:10-12.
The scene of the last judgment is graphically represented in the Apocalypse:
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
An ancient prayer sums up the theology of Christian stewardship:
“O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”