Dollars and Scents
One of the features of the new tax reform law is doubling the standard deduction – and that is a good thing. The increase will be a genuine benefit to many middle-class families. However, it also means there will be less incentive to itemize deductions for giving and likely as well that charitable donations will suffer as a result. Much of the tax advantage of giving for 30 million people who currently itemize their deductions every year will go away. To offset this change one of the strategies proposed by advisors is putting off any annual giving not covered by the standard deduction and only give when the amount becomes large enough to itemize. That might mean combining donations and giving only every other year. In other words, there will be an incentive for holding back.
The early church had a similar situation. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
However, there was one couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who thought they had figured a way to have the benefit of appearing to be as charitable as others while still keeping back part of their commitment for themselves. They wanted to look like extraordinarily generous people while hedging their bets. Unfortunately for them, Peter sniffed a rat.
Scripture often describes the smell of our lives. In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul says we are “to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life.”
Each of us develops a particular fragrance that is unique to us. It travels with us and we bring it into every room we enter and every encounter.
The early church was so pure that Ananias and Sapphira smelled like a pulp mill in comparison. One whiff was enough for Peter. Their sin was not hypocrisy. Even Peter later was a hypocrite when he would not eat with the Gentiles. No, it was holding back what had been dedicated to God. It was breaking the trust that bound the believers together.
Whatever we hold back begins to rot and our lives stink from what we are hiding. Something starts to die. We may try to smell like Barnabas but it doesn’t work. Everyone eventually knows. We may try to cover up the odor with spiritual Lysol but it’s useless. The stench of holding back overpowers whatever perfume we try to use.
We are encouraged by markets and tax incentives to hold back in our giving. We are advised to wait until the very last moments of the final days of the year to turn loose. But, the decision of holding back is one of life and death. For Ananias and Sapphira, it seems sudden and dramatic but I think it was the last part of a long process. No doubt, they were familiar with clever schemes and tactics with the result that their hearts had changed owners over the course of time. What might once have been giving freely had become calculated and self-serving.
I’ve taken a hard look this week at my own foot-dragging or even outright holding back on some of my commitments. It’s too easy to say, “I need to take care of that” and never get around to it. It’s tempting to get focused on the game of accumulation or giving just enough to try and smell like Barnabas and be deceived into holding back. There are so many smart angles and dodges we can use.
Sometimes people wrestle with how much is enough and my answer is not “give until it hurts” but give until the smell goes away. Give until you cannot detect anything dead in your life coming from a decision to hold back.
There is an amount – and it’s either $20 or a few hundred or even thousands of dollars we are reserving – and it’s making our lives stink. If you are holding back, I want you to set it right today. I want to smell good when I write next week and I want the same for you.