The Principle of Giving – Charles E. Jefferson (historic sermon 1860-1937)
“Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” Matt. 5:42
There is evidently some mistake. How can a man do that? If a man should do that he would be a pauper in less than a month. There must be a mistake.
Possibly it is a wrong translation. The King James Version was made nearly three hundred years ago, and the translators did not always succeed in catching the meaning of the Greek. They possibly slipped in translating this sentence. But a few years ago a company of the keenest scholars in this country and in England made a new translation of the New Testament, and brought to their work the assistance of modern scholarship. We can therefore trust them to give us the correct translation. Here it is: “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” They did not change a syllable.
Possibly Matthew wrote it wrong. What do the other Gospel writers have to say? Luke has the same idea, and here are his words (6:30): “Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again!” That is worse yet. There is no relief In that direction. Possibly the context will throw light on the sentence. It is evidently only a part of a large sentence, the beginning or the end of it, and after we have read what goes before and what comes after, the mystery will be made clear. But the sentence that goes before has no connection with this one. It ends a paragraph. The sentence that follows has no connection with this one. It begins a new paragraph. This text of ours is a complete sentence. It ends with a period. The context affords us no relief.
What shall we do? The easiest, laziest thing to do is to say that it is figurative, that is, it means nothing. If a thing is figurative it does not amount to anything. Jesus was simply talking to entertain and astonish. It is an easy way to get rid of the New Testament simply to say it is figurative. But this will not answer. If it is figurative it means something, and if it means something we must find out what the meaning is.
What shall, we do with it ? The question is an important one, because there are many sentences like this scattered through the New Testament, and if we learn how to deal with this sentence, we shall know how to deal with all sentences that belong to its class. This is a sentence which seems to be impracticable, and the charge made against Christianity just now is that it is not practicable for men living under present conditions. It is beautiful but theoretical, lovely but incapable of being reduced to practice. Now, if Jesus was visionary, and laid down rules which cannot be obeyed, then he is not the world’s Redeemer, and we must look for another. We men are obliged to live upon this earth, and the only teaching that helps us is teaching that can be translated into conduct If Christianity is beautiful to think about on Sunday, and impracticable on Monday, we cannot afford to think about it even on Sunday. The religion which we need is not a beautiful dream, but a solid reality which we can make use of along the dusty and difficult way. It is well worth our while, therefore, to find out if this sentence is the command of a visionary, or the exhortation of a man who knows the practical and indispensable principles of everyday life.
To understand the sentence we must first study the art of Jesus in public speech. He had a fashion of speech founded on certain principles, and it is by grasping these principles that we become able to interpret his sentences.
First of all, Jesus invariably spoke in such a way as to secure the attention of his audience. This was his first aim. This is the first aim of every man who knows how to speak. Unless he gets attention there is no use of him speaking at all. If he gets and holds attention he is a good speaker; if he cannot get attention he is a poor speaker, no matter how many good things may be said about him. Physical presence has nothing to do with it. Men with the physique of Daniel Webster have not been able to hold an audience ten minutes, and little hunchbacks with thin voices have chained audiences by their unique
and irresistible eloquence. Learning has nothing to do with it. Some of the most learned men become great bores as soon as they try to address an audience, whereas many a man with no knowledge of books has thrilled audiences with his compelling and passionate speech. Rhetoric has nothing to do with it. Men with a style as polished as that of Apollo have proved tedious and tiresome, while men with a style ragged and unkempt have charmed audiences unable to escape their power.
Grammar has nothing to do with it. A man may be faultless and dull, and a man may murder the Queen’s English and succeed. Dwight L. Moody was one of the greatest speakers this country has ever produced. He could carry ten thousand people with him through an hour, leaving them unconscious of the lapse of time, even though he tripped in his grammar every tenth sentence. What does an audience care for grammar when held in the grip of a man who knows how to talk? The first thing a speaker must do is to get attention, Jesus always got it. To get it he made use of various verbal devices. It is not easy to get attention, and it is harder still to hold it. Men are preoccupied. Their heads are filled with their own ideas and schemes, and only a strong man can compel them to listen.
The door is shut, and he who would enter must knock loud and long. Jesus knew how to knock. He used pictures. All men like pictures. We all have the child in us, and the child in us likes pictures. Jesus used pictures constantly in his preaching. The parables are so many stereopticon views of spiritual truth. The peasants of Palestine stood with open eyes looking at the verbal pictures which this genius from Nazareth painted. He used something stronger than pictures paradoxes. He said things which on the face of them were contradictory; leaving it for the audience to wrestle with his contradictions and find out if they could how they could be reconciled. “Do you want to be great, be little.” “Do you want to be chief, be least.” “Do you want to be first, be last.” “Do you want to rule, be a servant.” “Do you want to save your life, lose it.”
These are a few illustrations of his paradoxical method. Men could not help listening. A paradox takes a man by both ears. He used something stronger still, hyperboles. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” And at the end of the sentence the audience groaned. “Impossible ! Impossible for anybody to be saved,” was the cry. Jesus said, “You are mistaken. I did not say that. With God all things are possible.” Again: “If you have faith and believe, you can say to this mountain, be ye removed and be cast into the sea, and it shall be done.” Such language as that was sure to arrest attention. We can almost see the faces of the men as they listened. They listened so intently they could not keep still. They murmured. Time and again when he spoke an ugly buzz ran through the audience. The ideas, like cold water on fire, hissed as they fell into the hot hearts of men. Now and then a man would begin talking to himself, “Who is he? How did he learn that? I know his sisters. Isn’t he a carpenter?’ And occasionally men in the audience would enter into a great controversy even while he spoke. One man would say, “He is a good man.” Another would say, “He is a bad man, he is deceiving the people.” That is the best of all proofs of attention: mental activity in the audience. Jesus spoke with such power that his words entered into the very blood and marrow of men.
A second principle. He dealt with but one truth at a time. He always spoke to create an impression. He knew that the human mind is not capable of taking in two ideas at once. He singled out one truth which he wished to stamp upon men’s hearts, and then drove that truth home with all the energy of his great nature. There was a theory once current among our theological wise men which had it been universally accepted would have wrecked the entire church. According to this theory Christianity is a system of truth, and the entire system must be presented in every sermon. Jesus is the Son of God. He is divine.
His divinity must be proclaimed therefore every Sunday. No matter what the text or what the subject, a sermon is incomplete unless it holds up Christ as a divine being. But that is only one truth. Christ died for men. He who knew no sin was made sin for us. By his blood we are redeemed. This is essential. The doctrine of atonement must have a place in every sermon. Man is a sinner. He must be born again. God calls on all men to repent. Every sermon, therefore, must have an appeal to the unconverted. Life is uncertain. A man may never hear but one sermon. It ought to be arranged, therefore, that no human being should ever enter a church without being told that he is a sinner, that Christ is divine, and that atonement has been made for his sins. The theory is quite plausible, but mischievous and fatal. It wrecks the pulpit and wears out the congregation. If a preacher is going to say the same things every Sunday, his sermon soon loses its power. People may come out one hundred times, but not five hundred times, to hear the same thing. Under preaching modeled after that pattern it became a proverb, “Dull as a sermon,” dull because threadbare and worn out by constant repetitions.
The example of Jesus is a flat contradiction to this theory. He never presented truth as a system. He often spoke without referring to his divinity or his death or to the sin of man. There are many truths that man needs to know and these must be presented one at a time. This was the method of Jesus. He dealt with one truth as though there were none other in the entire universe of God. He carried his principle to extremes which seem to us reckless. Take, for example, his parable of the Unjust Judge. That parable fits at only one point. If you do not catch that one point you miss the lesson altogether. Or take even a stronger illustration, the parable of the Dishonest Steward. How easily misunderstood that is. Unless you grasp the one idea he is endeavoring to inculcate, you will be misled. I do not know of any public speaker so reckless as Jesus was in his allegiance to this principle of speech ” one idea at a time.”
Jesus trusted his audience. Some men are always afraid of being misunderstood. They say, “Now, please do not misunderstand me, I did not mean to say” and then they spend three minutes in explaining what they did not mean to say, and then they squander five minutes in making plain what they had intended to say, and the result is that half the people do not know when they get through what it is that they are expected to believe. Jesus trusted the people. He tossed his sentences into the air with great boldness, saying, “He that hath ears to hear let him hear.” Some speakers weary an audience by running things out into their finest details. Jesus allowed men to do their own thinking. He simply started them, gave them a hint, a mental push, and then said, “Now think it out for yourself.” Second-rate speakers wear the audience out by a foolish striving for mathematical accuracy. They load their sentences with parentheses and tack on amendments and qualifying clauses. They inject here an adjective which subtracts and there an adverb which supplements, and the mind is exhausted in trying to carry the great load. Some speakers seem to speak an hour when they speak thirty minutes, and others seem to speak thirty minutes although they have spoken for two hours.
The difference lies in the difference in style. Why is a German book harder to read than a French book? The Frenchman has a finer literary style. As Carlyle used to say, “The German does not know how to drop the rubbish out of his sentences.” The Frenchman knows how to do this. The German sentence is long and involved, and as Mark Twain says, you can travel all day in it without changing cars; whereas the French sentence is clean cut, and transparent as crystal. Some speakers are insufferably tedious because they load down their sentences with rubbish. Jesus never did. His sentences are like jewels. He introduced no parentheses^ tacked on no amendments. He threw his ideas into the air unencumbered and unentangled, and men were left to make the necessary modifications and adjustments.
And now we are ready for our sentence, “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” That is a principle of life. Every man ought to give it place in his heart. Without that principle life would be a wreck, a failure. But this is not the only principle. There are others just as important. There is one other far more important. No principle lives to itself, and no principle dies to itself. They are all united in the Lord. Love is the central principle of human life. Jesus announced that first of all. Love was the heaven he arched above men’s heads before he began to preach. Love was the foundation he spread beneath their feet before he attempted to teach them the way of life. Love was the sun which he hurled out into space, and all other principles were planets to revolve around this central sun. All that he said must be read in the light of the sun. All that he commanded must be interpreted by bringing it into relation with the chief of the commandments.
“Give!” That is a planet. Its orbit is determined by the sun. It is limited by love. But Jesus would not encumber his sentences by modifying clauses. He wanted his idea to stand out clear and sharp, so that every man would feel it. He was talking to Jews with itching palms. Their ambition in life was to get. They counted themselves happy in proportion to their success in adding to their accumulations. The whole nation was moving in that direction. Men passed before him in an endless procession, and they were all in pursuit of money. The Pharisees and the Sadducees and the scribes and the publicans and the sinners, good and bad, pious and wicked, they all alike loved to get rather than to give. And he threw at them this great principle, “Give! Turn round. You are moving in the wrong direction. You are missing the glory of life. You have the wrong attitude; take a new one. You live to get; live hereafter to give! Give to the man who asks thee from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” He burned that idea into the substance of their brain. They never got away from it.
But suppose he had gone at it in a petty and punctilious way. Suppose he had said: “Now you ought to give under certain circumstances and on certain conditions. If you can give in justice to yourself and your wife and your children and your dependent relations, you ought to give, providing you have first investigated the needs of the person asking assistance, and convinced yourself he would not be injured by the acceptance of your bounty.” How tame and commonplace all that would have been. It would have made no impression. Nobody would have remembered it. Matthew would not have caught it, he could not have written it in his book. We might never have known that Jesus said it. But he said it in his own unique and magnificent way, and those men never forgot it. To the day of their death they talked about the carpenter of Nazareth, marveled at the passionate way in which he had told them that men ought to live to give.
But the principle has limitations. Love sets limits to all giving. We are never allowed to give unless our giving is a service. We have learned that in our homes. “Mamma, I want that,” says the little child, with his big eyes glued upon the match box. To a child a match box is a mysterious institution. No other sticks are quite so fascinating, and those queer painted ends have wondrous possibilities. “Mamma, I want that!” and the mother says, “No, my child.” ” Mamma, I want that,” and this time he has his eyes on a bottle with a pictured label, and the mother says, “No, my child.” Again the voice comes, “I want that,” and this time the child is looking at his favorite dish. He has eaten much and he wants more. And again the answer is, “No, my child.” But does not Jesus say “Give to him that asketh thee?” Yes, but he also says, Love and a mother cannot give unless her gift is a blessing to her child. Many a mother breaks Christ’s commandment by giving when she ought to withhold her hand. “Mother, T want that!” “You cannot have it.” “But I am going to have it.” And thereupon Johnnie cries and sobs and threatens to go into a fit of hysterics, and the mother says, “Now, Johnnie, I will let you have it this time, but remember you can never have it again!” You say, that is mother love! Do not call it that.
Call things by their right names. Do not desecrate a noble word by throwing it on the shoulders of a mischievous sin. That is not love. It is weakness. One reason why there are so many spoiled men and women in the world is because there have been so many weak-willed and foolish mothers. All giving is wrong that violates the law of love.
We are under the same great law wherever we go. We meet a man on the corner. He has been in six saloons and wants to go into another. He wants a dime to get him something to eat. We refuse. Do we break the law of Christ? We keep it. We must not give to any man unless our giving will do him good. All Christian giving must be a service. When we hurt by giving we wound the heart of Christ.
The shiftless and lazy man comes to us for another loan. We know him, for he has been to us before. He makes his plea, and we say, No. But does not Christ say, “From him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away?” Yes, but he also says that we are to love our brother and never do him wrong. And we do a man wrong when we encourage him in his shiftlessness and abet him in his improvident courses.
It is exceedingly difficult to help men with money without hurting them.” Charity is a terrible evil,” said Edward Denison from the slums of London. And that is what Christian workers in the slums of New York are saying all the time. It is a terrible evil, this indiscriminate, reckless giving, scattering money with a thoughtless hand, and demoralizing the very people we are trying to help. Andrew Carnegie is putting nearly all his gifts into libraries and art galleries and schools, because he has learned by bitter experience how difficult it is to help men without hurting them. Give to the man who asks you if you can in justice to him and yourself, and from him that would borrow do not turn away unless you must do so in loyalty to the law of love.
But we want no modifications this morning. Let us look at it in its naked simplicity this great principle of life. “Give!” That is a Christian word. That is not a word of this world. The world never spoke that. Jesus uttered it. The world inscribes upon its banners, “Get!” That is the ambition of all great cities. The struggle in a city is tremendous, and all things conspire to develop in us the acquisitive powers of our nature. Does a man want bread, he must struggle for it; does he want money, he must wrestle for it; fame, he must work for it. What is a city but a few hundred thousand human beings huddled together in a few square acres of land, every one of them striving to get!
But getting is not the great thing in human life. I hear men say with a twinkle in their eye ah, he is a money-getter as though that were a great eulogy. But what does if mean? A money-getter? He may be a mean, narrow, contemptible wretch. A Mexican bandit is a money-getter, so is an Italian brigand, so Is a prize fighter, Ralph Nickleby was a money-getter, but every reader of Dickens hates him. “Put money in thy purse, put money in thy purse, put money in thy purse!” Do you recognize the words? They are those of Shakespeare’s devil.
We are animals so long as we live to get. We came into the world with our fists tightly clinched, and some men need an entire lifetime to get their hands opened. The shut hand is the symbol of animalism; the open hand is the emblem of the new man in Christ. Animals live to get. The lion goes forth to seek his prey. Some men are like the lion. The city is a forest in which they search for victims. The dog snatches the biggest bone and runs. His ambition is to get. The hog steps into the trough with all four feet because a hog lives to get. Man alone is capable of giving. He can stand erect with open hand, his face toward his brother’s face, and can imitate the example of Almighty God and be a dispenser of benefactions. You do not live unless you live to give.
The commandment is for all. It is addressed to no one class or circle. It is for the poor as well as for the rich. There is a feeling prevalent today among the poorer classes that their poverty releases them from the obligation of giving. They have a fashion of saying: “Let the rich people do this and let the rich people do that. They are able to do it, why not let them do it?” We sometimes hear such talk even inside the Christian church. Where do you find such doctrine anywhere set forth in the Scripture? By what word of apostle or Lord has the poor man been released from the obligation of giving? The
Lord is the friend of the poor and so he urges them to give. He does not want them to be dogs under the rich man’s table. He wants them to take their places among the hosts of the redeemed. It is only by giving that we enter into the life of God. A poor man can give much, but a rich man cannot. If the latter is worth a hundred millions and gives half of it away, he does not give much. He has given out his superfluity. But the poor man who gives out of his pittance gives much and great shall be his reward.
Give! The word comes to those who are in moderate circumstances. Give, and do not delay. Giving is one of the duties we like to postpone. We say, “When my income is larger, when times are better, then how generous I shall be.” The man who waits to give until he can give largely is in danger of never giving at all. Now is the accepted time, now is the day o,f salvation. The other evening the richest man in New York gave an address to a company of young men. In the course of his remarks he took from his pocket a little book, the most precious book to him, he said, in the world, and read out of it certain figures. It was an account book in which he had recorded his expenditures in the first years of his business life, when he was earning from four to six dollars a week. One cent a week went to the Sunday-school. There was a contribution of ten cents to foreign missions. There was a gift of twelve cents to the Mite Society. They were all small contributions, but they did a great work. They kept alive in that man’s soul the spirit of generosity. And the reason he now gives away a million at a time is because when he was poor he gave a cent every week to the Sunday-school. His advice to those young men was, “Give now. It is a mistake for a man who wishes for happiness and to help others, to think that he will wait until he has made a fortune before giving away money to deserving objects.”
Give! The commandment comes with special emphasis to the rich. For to whom much has been given from them shall much be required. A man with wealth in a world like this has weighty responsibilities. His temptation is to dress in fine linen and fare sumptuously every day, and forget that needy humanity lies sick at his door. As a man prospers in this world’s goods he naturally adds to the number of his luxuries, and these luxuries in time become necessities, swallowing up his income, and leaving him little opportunity to obey Christ’s command to give. The stewardship of wealth as taught by the Redeemer of the world fastens upon a rich man’s soul a weight of responsibility for whose discharge lie must answer at the judgment day.
Give! That is the attitude for every soul to take. That is the disposition for every soul to cultivate. Let the poor man say, “I will give out of my poverty.” Let the rich man say, “I will give out of my abundance.” Let every man say, “I will make it a principle of my life to give, and nothing shall set limits to my giving but the golden law of love.”