From the Perspective of Different Faiths
Representatives of different traditions write of their faith’s teaching in relationship to generosity, the form generosity takes within their traditions, and how their own tradition’s understanding of generosity gives shape to its view of “the other.”
Judaism and Generosity
Generosity is one of those values that is exalted in every religious or cultural tradition. Or to put this another way: I don’t know of any such tradition that speaks in praise of hard-heartedness or of the miser. Yet each particular tradition defines and teaches universal values in its own way, in light of its own history and in the context of its own view of the world and of humanity’s place in it. The particular Jewish teachings concerning generosity are perhaps best expressed in three important texts.
We begin with Deuteronomy 15:8. When a member of our community has become poor, we must not turn away from him but rather provide him “sufficient for whatever he lacks.” Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish legal scholar and philosopher, interprets this as follows: “You are required to give the poor person whatever s/he lacks: clothing, housing, the means for building a family. Even if s/he had once been wealthy and has fallen into poverty, we restore him or her to his/her former state, for ‘you must provide him sufficient for whatever he lacks’.” It’s a difficult teaching, yes, one that establishes an ideal of social welfare that few if any communities have ever fully realized. For our purposes, though, the point is that it places the needs of the recipient–and not the feelings of the donor–at the center of the act of giving. It’s telling that the Hebrew term for “almsgiving” and, in the contemporary vein, “philanthropy,” is tz’dakah, drawn from the root word meaning “justice.” Generosity, in other words, is based in mitzvah, a divine commandment; it is something we owe to the Other because it is right and not primarily an act of charity that springs from our own good feelings.
The second text is Exodus 25:2, which describes how God’s sanctuary shall be built through gifts accepted “from every person whose heart so moves him.” From this verse we derive the Hebrew term for “a generous person”: n’div lev, which means literally “one of a giving or willing heart” (see also Exodus 35:5). Generosity in this sense is a matter of the heart, of one’s freely accepted decision to give. It therefore expands upon our first understanding of the word. When it comes to aiding the poor and to building a community of economic and social equity, “generosity” is a subset of justice: it is a duty we are obliged to meet, and we have no right to refuse. But the good society is not built upon justice alone. So much depends upon the gifts we give each other, gifts that spring from an openness of heart rather than solely from an externally-imposed obligation.
These two different aspects of generosity are best summarized, I think, in a third text, Exodus 15:2: “This is my God, Whom I shall glorify.” The Rabbis of the Talmud, the great teachers and sages of our tradition, teach that we “glorify” God by walking in God’s ways. Just as God is compassionate and gracious (see Exodus 34:6), so we must act toward others with compassion and grace. This is the Jewish version of the theological concept of imitatio Dei: we fulfill our nature as human beings by walking in God’s ways. And we do that by turning toward the Other with compassion and grace–which is to say out of love–both by doing our duty of justice and by opening our hearts to them.
Christianity and Generosity
One of my favorite prayers in The Book of Common Prayer reads: Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all the we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. This prayer serves to remind us of our call to generosity because of four fundamental theological tenets:
- All things are created by God (Genesis 1, 2; BCP, 846);
- All things belong to God, and what we have belongs to God (I Chronicles 29:14b);
- Jesus represents God’s ultimate generosity (BCP, 849); and,
- We are called to represent Christ in the world (BCP, 855).
Since our tradition is rooted in the fundamental belief in the Triune God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, we interpret creation as a form of generous expression of God’s relational nature. From the Christian perspective, the culmination of God’s loving expression for the world is found through the act of incarnation wherein “Word” became flesh in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) for the redemption of the world (John 3:16) in the form of God’s initial desire for intimacy.
Generosity is tied into the very nature of God’s generative love. Although humans by their very substance reflect the image of God, our vocation is to live into reflecting the likeness of God. In living into our vocation, Jesus serves as the primary icon of God and demonstrates a selfless, self-giving love and ethos (Philippians 2:1-11). The teachings of Jesus represent this. Paul as a commentator on the tradition offers that the greatest virtue of Christian life is “love” or the generous expression of care (I Corinthians 13). Mission is shaped by the virtue of love and becomes an extension of God’s care for the world.
The basis for commemorating the generosity of love is the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Eucharist is literally a rendering of thanksgiving. Through participation in the Eucharist, we remember God’s love for humanity through the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Our worship is the corporate act of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, all offered as our oblation to God (BCP, 856). This oblation is rendered in response to God’s generosity and graciousness to us. Prayer, especially, as our “response to God, by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words” is embodied in mission whereby mission as prayer is a response to God’s generative love.
Our mission in the world to represent Christ has been embodied in Anglicanism’s desire to advocate for and pursue the common good. This concept, expressed by Richard Hooker, has its evolution in the scholastic theology of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas adopted this from Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics. The notion of creating and pursuing the common good is fundamentally about establishing and pursuing the structures of ecological, economic, and social justice.
Islam and Generosity
God is the one who provides everything for us and he expects us to share generously. We are encouraged to be benevolent and unselfish with our possessions, with our time, and with our exemplary behavior towards others. Our worldly possessions are bounties from God who is Al-Kareem, the Most Generous. Muslims believe that everything originates from God and everything will return to him; thus what we possess is merely a loan, something we are obligated to preserve, protect, and ultimately share.
Islam encourages a concept of generosity so much that it is embedded in one of the five pillars of Islam, known as “Zakat.” It means purification of the heart, and it is the payment from one’s belongings to provide for the unfortunate members of the community. Another form of generosity in Islam is called “Sadaqa,” which means truthfulness and is described as the heart being truthful to its Creator. Anything given generously (freely to others) with the intention of pleasing God is Sadaqa, which can be as simple as a smile, helping an elderly person with his groceries, or removing objects from the road.
Generosity may pave the way to paradise because with every generous act comes great reward from God. Generosity doesn’t lie in giving away something that is no longer useful but in giving freely from the things we love or need. “Never will you attain the good (reward) until you spend (in the way of God) from that which you love” (3:92). God tells us in the Quran that whatever we give away generously with the intention of pleasing him, he will replace it. God knows what is in the hearts of men. “And whatever you spend in good, it will be repaid to you in full, and you shall not be wronged” (2:272).
At its core, Islam teaches Muslims to be constructive, beneficial members of their societies, always helping those who are deprived and destitute to the best of their abilities. Every good deed is described as an act of charity. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Every Muslim has to give in charity.” The people asked, “If someone has nothing to give, what should he do?” He said, “He should work with his hands and benefit himself and give in charity from what he earns.” The people further asked,” If he can’t find even that?” He replied, “He should help the needy who appeal for help.” Then they asked, “If he cannot do that?” He replied, “Then he should perform good deeds and keep away from sinful deeds and this will be regarded as charitable deeds” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari, 1445).
Generosity is not expressed exclusively with wealth and money, but also with our time, good deeds, actions, and kindness to all people. Islam includes generosity as an essential part of having a good character, which is defined as generosity, charitable giving, and loving kindness towards people. Every Muslim should follow the steps of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in this matter, as he was the most generous person in every aspect. He never refused a request, for it was he who said, “The generous are near to God … but distant from the Hellfire, and the miserly are distant from God … but near to the Hellfire” (Tirmidhi, “Birr”, 40), and “O people! Surely God has chosen Islam as religion for you. Improve your practice of it through generosity and good manners” (M. Fethullah Gulen, The Infinite Light).
Unitarian Universalism and Generosity
The famous nineteenth-century essayist and one-time Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson opined, “The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.” Since many Unitarian-Universalists (UUs) regard Emerson as an unofficial saint, his quote says much about the way many UUs view generosity. First, it involves far more than just financial resources as in “…a portion of thyself.” Second, its basis is not so much on a written scripture, but on human experience.
For those not familiar with Unitarian Universalism, it is a non-creedal faith tradition. Congregants are not asked to adhere to specific teachings or spiritual texts. Instead, UUs draw on wisdom from a variety of sources, including Jewish and Christian scriptures. They are just as likely to take guidance from interfaith or non-faith sources as well. As a result, no one person can speak for all UUs on a topic such as generosity, but I think Emerson did well.
At its core, generosity is a human attribute. Some may argue that it comes to our species as a commandment from (or, more positively, as a blessing from) our Creator. The typical UU would not be as concerned with from where it comes, but rather what purpose it serves and how it is expressed. Generosity serves both the collective and the individual. The act of giving or sharing our resources is a celebration of our abundance and our gratitude.
Many UU congregations speak aloud an affirmation that includes these words: “ … love is the spirit of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer … ” Generosity in the form of service to others is indeed the core of many UU’s spiritual practices. Service to others is not seen as part of the admission price to an afterlife, but rather as a path toward a more heavenly experience of life on earth.
While the spirit of generosity translates into a sharing of time, treasure, and talents to a faith community itself, it is perhaps most noteworthy in its projection outward. Early Universalists (who merged with Unitarians in the 1960s to form the Unitarian Universalist Association) believed in universal salvation. That radical inclusiveness is today expressed by a modern-day faith tradition that is welcoming to all—all beliefs and non-beliefs, orientations and expressions, races and ethnicities. For UUs, the “other” is just a part of a wider “us.” That is why many UU foremothers and forefathers stood up for women’s suffrage and an end to slavery. Indeed, UUs are known for their service to others, as demonstrated by renowned historical figures with UU affiliations such as Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Theodore Parker, and Albert Schweitzer.
Of course, generosity also refers to gifts of financial resources. Recently, my own congregation began giving 100% of its Sunday collections to causes and organizations outside its walls. Congregants continue to support the needs of the church through pledges. Here is the interesting thing: even as we have given over $100,000 to serve the needs of others, our annual support for our operating budget has increased. That’s the magic about generosity. It begets more generosity, something our world could use a good deal more of regardless of one’s spiritual path.
Hinduism and Generosity
In Hinduism, charity is associated with 1) Daana––generosity: the giving of alms, gifting, and sharing; 2) Prema: loving kindness towards all beings; 3) Bhakti: abject surrender to God; 4) Preeti: heightened attachment (love, joy, and adoration) toward aspects of creation and relations. In each of these ways, charity is considered a purifying and refining yoga practice on the path of spiritual progress.
Daana can be understood as an act of conscious and willing giving from among our possessions to a willing recipient who consciously accepts the gift and becomes its new owner. In the Vedas, Daana is glorified as just and efficacious for God realization as sacrifice (yagna) and penance (tapas).
On the other hand, Prema, Bhakti, and Preeti are one-sided acts centered in faith and emotion, expressed as love, and considered a virtue akin to agape in Christian theology. While neither conforming to nor easily explained as “action,” they arise from mental and emotional refinement, resulting in freedom from egoistic, possessive, selfish expectancy to a level of selfless surrender. It is in this selfless sense that they can be best understood as charity.
Hindu teachings often use anecdotal stories (parables) to provide guidance on righteous living. One such story from the Mahabharata distinguishes between magnanimity and charity. Arjuna asks his friend Lord Krishna why his brother Karna is considered a role model for Daana but not himself. To make his point, Krishna transforms nearby mountains to piles of gold and asks Arjuna to make sure all the gold is distributed among the members of a village nearby. Two days later, the mountains of gold remain as they began. Krishna then assigns Karna the same task. Karna simply calls out to passing villagers, tells them all the gold is theirs and asks them to do with it as they please. When Arjuna wonders why he did not think to act as Karna did, Lord Krishna explains that Arjuna was subconsciously attracted to the gold and therefore the size of his donation was limited by his imagination. Karna on the other hand, had no such reservations. He walked away after giving away a fortune, not expecting praise or even caring what was said about him behind his back. Krishna describes this as the sign of a man already on the path of enlightenment.
The Isa Upanishad tells us that true peace lies in detachment from wealth. We are not asked to renounce wealth but rather our attitude towards it. The Chandokya Upanishad (4:1-2) teaches us that “all things in the universe are supported by the Spirit and all belong to that Spirit. The mere giving of gifts without this spiritual wisdom can bring no true peace.”
The Bhagavad Gita (3:19-26) states “strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work, one attains the supreme goal in life. Do your work with the welfare of others in mind.” From a spiritual perspective, any act of giving motivated by selfish consideration loses its value. Furthermore, the Bhagavata Purana states that we have no right to claim more than what is required for our basic purposes. The Mahabharata recommends that one-third of our wealth be used for philanthropic purposes. While these ideas may sound contrary to capitalist culture, in reality, there is no judgment on doing well financially. What matters is what our relationship is to that wealth and whether we share as much as possible with those in need.
Zen Buddhism and Generosity
A student of the Zen way came to Master Zhaozhou and said, “I have just entered your monastery. Please give me instruction.” Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?” The student said, “Yes.” Zhaozhou responded, “Wash your bowl.” With this the student had an insight.
I’ve always loved this seventh case in the Wumenguan, that grand twelfth century collection of koans used on the Zen way, not least because it features the great master Zhaozhou Congshen (Joshu in Japanese). Born at the end of the eighth century, Zhaozhou is one of the signal figures in the formation of Zen Buddhism.
I’ve sat deeply with this koan. I’ve investigated it as a student, and for the past decade and a half I’ve accompanied a goodly number of Zen students in their own investigation. I’ve found this case endlessly rich. It certainly can open our hearts in a wide number of directions.
And, like any real koan, it can mislead the unwary. For instance I’ve worked with several students who believe Zhaozhou is rebuking the student. One thought the master was annoyed at how his precious time was being wasted by the importuning of a novice. Another took a slight variation on that and believed it was a sharp rebuff of someone hoping for a conceptual response to Zen’s fundamental questions of life and death.
However, I’ve found “wash your bowl” to be an invitation into the very heart of generosity. The technical term in Buddhism for generosity is dana. Dana shares similar meanings in the other Indian religions, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, yet each of these traditions shades the point of generosity slightly differently.
For Buddhists, including Zen Buddhists, dana is a core spiritual practice that needs to be seen as more than giving opportunities. For some, it is also a practice that purifies one’s karma leading to a propitious rebirth. For others, it is a central part of a practice that cultivates wisdom. The Brooklyn Zen Center teaches that “to practice dana is to challenge the ego’s frame that in order to give, we must get. Dana is instead a trusting step, a confidence in the universe that allows us to open to life. So we turn our intention toward this practice through which we deeply realize our interconnection to all that is.”
Here we are invited into something, and specifically the something we also find in the Wash Your Bowl koan. What we are invited into on the Zen way is to open our eyes to the connections. We are invited into discovering how we and all things exist in a mysterious dance of becoming and falling away. We and all things are constantly creating each other.
The power of a meditative practice, which is the call to silence and to a bare presence, allows us to begin to see this. This is not a dance where there is an option to sit it out. This is the dance of life and death itself, and the invitation is to come into more grace, which is another word for generosity.
So old Zhaozhou is approached by a student of the way. The question is sincere. And it is met with all the gravity the situation calls for. Have you eaten? And when the answer is a blessed yes, then the next step is offered: wash your bowl. Here the heart of the world’s generosity is revealed. As is ours.