I was listening to the radio recently when an ad came on offering a "free" vacation to the Caribbean. It said that 500 of these vacations were being offered in our area for a limited time.
Hmmm...what's the catch? Well, the first suspect thing I heard in the ad - which went by very quickly, making it hard to hear all the details (of course) - was that this was a free TWO DAY vacation. That's not very long to spend in the Caribbean. As a matter of fact, they would probably tell you that you can't even get on and off the cruise ship in two days...you will have to add a few more days to the cruise to take advantage of this offer...at your own expense, of course!
Other details escape my memory, but it was a reminder about a lot of the "free" offers that are out there...remember the old saying, "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is"?
Some "gifts" are like that. They come with strings attached. Whether it's the gift of a free (two day!) Caribbean vacation, or the gift from a friend, relative or business associate who then expects you to remember their generosity when they need something from you!
So why are we such suckers for "free" stuff? Why do we want to believe that we can actually get something for nothing? Life doesn't work that way...there's always a catch. Nothing's really free, and most of the "free" stuff is junk anyway...it either breaks almost immediately, or never lives up to it's promise to begin with.
There's something in the human heart that wants to take the easy route, to get something for free rather than work for it. Which may just be part of our current debt problem in America:
Why should I save up for something I want when I can use a credit card and charge it now?
Why delay my pleasure and gratification of my desires?
This seems to be the attitude of the young man in Jesus' parable about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). He's the younger of two sons, and he demands his share of his inheritance from his father. He doesn't want to wait to receive what's "rightfully his." He wants to enjoy life now.
The father gives him his share of his inheritance, and soon he's headed for the bright lights of the big city. It's party time! But it doesn't take long for him to burn through all his inheritance, and he goes quickly from being the life of Bourbon Street to being an untouchable street person. The only job he can get it feeding hogs, which for a kosher Jewish boy is not real desirable or good for the ol' ego!
I want to pause here to make a couple observations:
First, I suspect that, while all the spending and high life seemed fun at the time, this young man had little appreciation for what it all cost. His money was easy come, easy go...and I doubt he was really getting much satisfaction from the spending, because he had no idea of the value of that money. He had no idea how much toil, saving and patience was necessary to create that wealth...why would he? It was handed to him.
When we "buy" something on credit, we dont' fully appreciate its value. That leads to lower satisfaction with our purchase. And it leads to the desire for something new again because my pleasure was short-lived.
Second, because he himself did not earn the money through toil, saving and patience, he also did not look ahead and plan for tomorrow. He was living for the moment. He probably thought dad's 'gravy train' would never run dry. He had no sense of self-responsibility. He wasn't tracking his spending, or his bank balance. He wasn't making any effort to take care of his future financial needs with today's time, strength and opportunities.
When we keep spending all that we have - and MORE than we have - today, there will be nothing there to take care of us tomorrow. Which means we will have to continue to work - both for our own needs, but also to pay back whoever else we owe for yesterday's fun and forgotten stuff. And often it means serving someone else, instead of being self-employed or in control of our own life.
While these observations aren't the main point of the story of the prodigal son (I'll get to that in a future post), they point to some important principles for living that I've talking about in this current sermon series on stewardship:
1) God wants us to be content with what we have, so that we will be good stewards of the wealth he entrusts to us. Toil, savings and patience lead to a personal balance sheet and net worth that's in the black instead of in the red. But you will only exercise the discipline necessary to live this way if you truly trust God to meet your needs and CHOOSE to be content with what you have. That's right, contentment is a CHOICE! And I'm going to talk about this on Sunday...the message is called "Cultivating Contentment." Contentment makes saving and planning wisely for the future possible.
2) When you choose contentment - and over time develop a net worth that's in the black - you have resources that can be used for your own needs and wants, but they can also be used for God's purposes. You have the financial means to invest in worthy causes and ministries. You have the resources to help someone else who has hit a rough spot. You have the resources to invest in your own or someone else's great idea for a product or enterprise than can create more wealth for the future. And you will likely create more jobs and livelihoods for other persons, blessing their lives as well!
Why is GIVING better than RECEIVING?
Because if you are in a position to GIVE, it means you have disciplined yourself to earn and save, creating wealth that can help others. It means you are being a responsible, productive person and you are using the gifts and resources God has entrusted to you in faithful stewardship. And someday you will hear those words of Jesus spoken in another parable, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"
So while sometimes it certainly is a blessing to receive (it certainly has been at times in my life)...
...it is truly the greater blessing to GIVE than to RECEIVE.