Buying Bill Gates a latte

Buying Bill Gates a latte

While we often struggle to be generous to others, receiving generosity ourselves can be even more difficult. In this blog, Evan reflects on this phenomenon.

“I don't care if it came from an angel from Heaven. We've got on all right all these years and no favours asked. I'm not going to begin these sort of charity goings-on at my time of life.” [1]

So says Mr Perks, the station porter in The Railway Children, when he is presented with a hamper to thank him for his services to the village. As a child, I couldn’t imagine someone being too proud to accept a gift. These days, however, I find that my own approach to generosity can look a lot like the pride of Mr Perks.

At the end of Generosity Week, a friend of mine (not, as it happens, from The Globe Church) very kindly offered to pay for my meal. Though I gratefully accepted it, I was slightly taken aback. To me, generosity almost always means charity, and in my mind that means giving (usually financially) to someone who is ‘needier’ than I am. My friend was a student whose only source of income was his student loan, while I had just been offered a job. He was hardly struggling financially, but some part of me felt that it was my responsibility to be generous to him, and not the other way around. Of course, had he been a hedge fund manager, I’m not sure I’d have bothered to bring my wallet.

Having said that, I find it easier to set up a direct debit to some ‘worthy cause’ than to pay for a friend’s coffee. Maybe because, again, I tend to assume that generosity means helping those who are ‘less fortunate than I’. As for those in the same income bracket as me, well, they can buy their own caffe macchiatos. Which is, perhaps, an attitude that was shared by those who responded to Mary pouring expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet by complaining that the money could have been given to the poor.

Of course, none of this means that we shouldn’t give to those who are financially poorer than us. Jesus did say ‘when you give to the needy’, not ‘when you buy Bill Gates a latte’. But it’s easy to be generous in the wrong way, treating those we help as if they are different to us, even acting as if we are better than them. We can assume that the lives of those who are affected by financial poverty are also blighted by moral, spiritual and emotional poverty. All too often, we end up overlooking our own poverty, not least that middle-class poverty of time and community.

But that’s not how financial generosity is meant to be. When Paul writes to the Corinthian church to talk about their gift to those in need, he says that ‘at the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need’. Lest it seem like he is selling us car insurance, he adds that ‘the goal is equality’. We don’t give to receive, but we give knowing that we are not too good to receive.

Of course, generosity is not all about money, nor is it all about helping those who are poorer than us. Sometimes, it won’t even be about giving, but about spending our money differently.

But, whatever form our generosity takes, we must do it from a position of equality, whether the other person is richer or poorer than us in any number of ways. We need to remember that we do not give because we are better than anyone else, but precisely because we are not.

[1] Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1874/1874-h/1874-h.htm)