Do you have those mornings when you get up and don’t want to give an inch to anyone? I have days where my patience with life is thin, and it takes a bit more than one full cup of my industrial-strength coffee to be on speaking terms with the waking world. The last adjective I would use to describe myself in those times is “generous of spirit.” But generosity of spirit is vital to the Christian life, and that is part of the message in today’s readings.
In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul exhorts the people of Corinth to demonstrate their spirit of repentance by giving generously to the support of the saints in Jerusalem. This passage just goes to show you that capital campaigns enjoy a long tradition in our Church. No doubt we would have met our goals much sooner if St. Paul had been involved in our fund-raising efforts. All kidding aside, though, St. Paul speaks here to our obligation as Christians to aid those who are less fortunate—giving from our need, not from our excess. If we give only of what we have in excess, we’re simply giving someone what they should already have. If all goods are given to us in stewardship, then our obligation is not to hoard but to act justly and to give all people what is due to them—at very least, the basic necessities for life.
This principle is what the Church calls the universal destination of goods. Paragraph 2405 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says specifically that “Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor,” and the same teaching has been presented in encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII through Benedict XVI. I am my brother’s keeper—not the state or the US government. I am personally to see to the welfare of those in need. Sometimes I do better than others.
The gospel passage today comes from Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” which is essentially a recasting of the giving of the Law on Mt. Nebo—a reinterpretation of the Mosaic Law by the giver of that Law, the Word Himself. Matthew wrote for a Jewish Christian audience, which is why his version of this sermon varies so dramatically from the sermon as presented by Luke. In this particular instance, Jesus is countering a contemporary interpretation of Jewish Law. He wasn’t alone in this particular interpretation. In fact, another influential rabbi of His time, Hillel, taught something very similar: “That which is hateful to you, do not to others.” Jesus inverts that and gives us what we now know as the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” But here, Jesus goes even further. We’re not to return good for good. Even sinners and tax collectors do as much. This is not a quid pro quo. We’re supposed to return good for evil. We’re supposed to love those who treat us with contempt and those who wish us harm. We’re supposed to pray for those who persecute us. We’re supposed to love others as God has loved us.
The Jews held up the Law as their standard of conduct. Jesus is telling His disciples that it is not enough to follow the Law and to conform our lives to it. In fact, He frequently condemns the literalistic application of the Law touted by the Pharisees. Jesus’ standard is Jesus Himself. God blesses the righteous and unrighteous and makes the sun and the rain fall on both. Jesus forgives those who crucify Him.
That is generosity of spirit, and that is what we are called to do. If the disciples’ standard for behavior is God, God who is love, then our spirit must be guided and inflamed by that perfect love.