While I generally use the lectionary texts as the basis for my sermons and worship preparation on most Sundays, I occasionally depart from that structure and craft my own series. Currently I’m working my way through a nine-part series on the life of Joseph. As his story unfolds, we witness our hero going from rags to riches, back to rags, and then again to riches. The key to Joseph’s ultimate rise to power was his ability to interpret dreams, and the grand-daddy of them all is his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream—the vision of the seven plentiful years and the seven lean years. Corn and cows paraded through the king’s head one night, and his court magicians and sages had not a clue as to what it all meant. But Joseph did. “God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do,” he announced to the great potentate. “Take one-fifth of each of the next seven years’ grain harvests and store it in silos. Then you will have enough to feed the entire country during the seven lean years to follow.”
In light of the recent failure of several Rock of Gibraltar financial institutions and the wild volatility of the world’s markets since last fall, Joseph’s counsel to “save up, store up!” makes all the rational sense in the world, and many of us may be tempted to draw our funds from the bank and hide them under our pillows. At the very least, we may think we should tighten our belts and cut back on our spending, particularly when it comes to charitable giving, and “save up, store up” as much as we possibly can. As traditional folk wisdom has it, “you just never know,” or “better safe than sorry,” or “save for a rainy day.” (And aren’t these days awfully rainy?!)
On the one hand (ala Joseph), such thinking is based upon good common sense. But when it comes to the kingdom of God, such a strategy is counter to everything Jesus taught. In fact, Jesus warned about those who excessively “save up, store up.” He told a parable about a farmer who kept building larger and larger barns to hold his surplus grain (most likely not sharing the overflow with anybody!), and when he died, it so happened that he was spiritually destitute. He hadn’t even given a thought to the ethics of the “Other Side.”
I believe that one of the keys to our investing “treasure in heaven,” as Jesus counsels in Matthew 6:20, and staying spiritually healthy in this life, is our continuing need to practice generous faith even during uncertain times. As our churches seek to extend their ministry to those in our regions who are really going to feel the pinch during this time of economic crisis and cover our own congregational expenses as we continue to offer our facilities and services to the surrounding communities, we will all need to pledge toward supporting our budgets with intensified vigor and intentionality. Giving more during a lean year might seem counterintuitive, but isn’t this the way when it comes to gospel truth—like Jesus’s reaping-what-we-sow dynamic or Paul’s admonition that “the one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly.”
Preparatory “saving up, storing up,” may work well when it comes to famines, but it doesn’t seem to square with the ethics of the kingdom of God. In fact, “saving up, storing up” has been known to actually cause spiritual famines, which can last a lot longer than seven years. We can become owned by our things rather than vice versa. The anxiety that we spend on securing what we think we own can be downright captivating.
So, rather than the typical and understandable reflex to draw back from our charitable giving and church support, let us viscerally consider the New Testament’s challenge: “From the ones to whom much is given, much will be required”—particularly during the lean years. ?