Skip to comments.Katrina, 2 Corinthians, and Giving
Posted on 09/05/2005 11:22:20 AM PDT by sionnsar
As some of you are aware, I have spent most of 2005 immersed in Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, and have found it one of the most fruitful bible studies that I have undertaken for a long time. While I feel that I do not spend enough time in in-depth study of the text, I believe this is a shortcoming in all church contexts -- and accounts for the incredible ignorance of Scripture that there is in so many settings, even those that claim to know it. Much of the narcissism we confront in the churches comes from an ignoring of Scripture because we remain ignorant of it, but that discussion is for another time.
The other evening I got an email suggesting that in the light of the response we now make to the catastrophe along the Gulf Coast, it might be helpful to have some insights into Paul's thinking on giving from 2 Corinthians. As you know, 2 Corinthians 8-9 are two of the key chapters about the nature of Christian giving in the New Testament. In past times I confess that I have come to this passage with stewardship eye, wanting to interpret what the Apostle says in terms of what the church's needs might be. In other words, how can I use Scripture to help people to understand the nature of Christian giving? This has been selfish eisegesis -- reading into the text what I want to be there.
Behind that, of course, is the realization that there is a budget that needs to be met, and it is one of my responsibilities to raise those funds. Thus, how can I tweak the Word of God so that it means what I want it to? I became conscious of my bias when handling 2 Corinthians a couple of years ago when a member of my congregation quizzed me on what I was actually trying to say when I preached a short series on this passage.
However, it was not until this year, when I started to look at this section within the context of the whole letter, and with the help of half a dozen commentaries written by far greater minds than my own, that I was able to face up to the fact that I was coming at the text in a totally wrong manner. These two chapters are about grace, God's riches poured out upon us. The key verse, if there is one is 8:9, where Paul writes, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich."
The starting point for giving must always be the person and work of our Lord Jesus. As Tom Wright puts it, "What counts is a work of grace in the hearts and lives of ordinary people," not whipping up sympathy or guilt over a particular project so that people will shell out in support (Paul For Everyone: 2 Corinthians). It was about four or five months ago that I found myself suddenly reading these chapters through the eyes of grace and not the eyes of giving, and I found them making sense as never before.
The word "grace" (charis) appears a number of times in these two chapters, yet as you go through the text word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence it is implied or described time and again. Grace is about the God who gives, Paul tells us. Paul was Christocentric through and through, and as he coaxes the Corinthians to think about fulfilling their commitment to this great project of sending relief funds to the church in Jerusalem, he effortlessly links the liberality of God's giving (which is his grace), with our responsiveness.
It would appear that the Macedonian believers, far poorer folks that the Corinthians, had already been overwhelming in their support of the Jerusalem project, and Paul does not want either the Corinthians or himself to be embarrassed by footdragging (9:4). In this, he spoke like every fundraiser I know!
We also see woven within this Paul's recognition that checks and balances should be in place to ensure financial responsibility. It isn't just him that is involved with this purse, but there is also Titus, "the brother who is famous among the churches," and depending on how you read the text there are others. Just as Christ was above reproach in what he did sacrificially on our part, Paul implies, so he is above reproach when it comes to raising and handling funds. This is a lesson we should all take seriously.
But from beginning to end the theme of these chapters is the gift of God. 8:1 begins with we want you Corinthians to know about the grace of God that has been shown by the Macedonians in their response to God's loving self-giving, and at the end of chapter 9 he writes, "Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!"
One of the problems with those of us who are preachers is that we tend to concentrate on passages about God loving a cheerful giver (9:7), and less on God being an overwhelming giver to whose grace we respond. We also play up the rewards of giving, as it were, with great play on verses like those who sow bountifully will reap bountifully (9:6) -- in effect functioning like hucksters who always want there to be something in it for the donor... "Have I got a reward for you!"
What is in it for the donor is that in giving we are reflecting the nature of God, at whose heart is the determination to give and give and give. This isn't going to appeal very much to those who are not overwhelmed by God's love and grace.
The Creator gave us the universe, the planet on which we live, the air we breathe and the food we eat. Above all, and capping all other gifts, he gave us our salvation in the person of Jesus, the Messiah who Paul had persecuted but now whom he served with all his being. 2 Corinthians is about what apostolic service and ministry really mean. Three times in the letter Paul spells out what it costs to be an apostle, but there is nothing whining about his description because he gives of himself willingly, just as God gave to us willingly of himself.
Throughout Chapters 8 and 9 there is the steady reiteration that giving can never be coerced, but must be from the overflow of the heart as we look at what God has done for us in Christ (9:12). We give because God has given, and with all our being what we want to do is reflect in our lives and actions the face of God.
What does this mean in our present circumstances? Well, I believe that as we look at those who have suffered and lost everything, we need to understand that we see the face of God. Didn't Jesus tell his disciples in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:40), that "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me?"
As I have watched in horror rescues taking place from streets that I know from my own visits to New Orleans, fellow-Episcopalians worshiping in Mississippi on the concrete slab of what once used to be their church, children screaming from hunger and fear as they hung on their mother's clothes outside the Superdome, and the hopelessness on the faces of elderly people sitting resignedly in lawn chairs, I realize that I am seeing the face of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, and these words of Jesus have eaten themselves into my heart with fresh urgency.
We respond to our fellows in need because of our common humanity. We respond because we cannot imagine, perhaps, what it would be like to be in their shoes. We respond because we have friends and family caught up in this tragedy. But whatever our subordinate reason for responding, we do so because of what Christ has given to us, and because the compulsion is upon us to reflect by our giving the indescribable gift of grace and salvation.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians in flattery, "It is superfluous for me to write to you about the offering for the saints..." (9:1), and it should be superfluous for us to remind our fellow-believers of their obligations to give as God has given to us. Yet, here's the rub, while it might be relatively easy to open our hearts and give to fellow-Americans who have fallen foul of the worst the climate can throw at them, the test of our generosity will come when the crisis is overtaken by other news and we see other faces further away and in different lands who require our generosity, faces that are "the least of these my brethren."
The rub will also come when the bill is totted up for this crisis in the USA and the government, perhaps despite its instincts about taxes, requires us to pay more of our own means to underwrite the expenses that are being incurred. We have been shocked, perhaps, by the fact that the response was so slow in coming, but now, having demanded that response, are we prepared to pay for it? I like taxes no more than anyone else, but there is a place were civic responsibility in obedience to the Gospel takes over from my desires or wants. Will we be generous givers or will me-first materialism take over?
One of the things I have always loved about America is that it is a place of possibilities. I have been given opportunities and possibilities here that I would probably never have received in my homeland, and for that I am profoundly grateful. By and large, the USA has given me a fulfilled and fulfulling life, but part of the reason for this is that before America came onto the scene, the Lord Jesus reached out and redeemed me, calling me to be his own. So in the end, as Paul writes so clearly, it all comes back to him. If my life is surrendered at the foot of the Cross, what can I do but to give it all back to him. The question for each of us is whether we are prepared to glorify God in our response to his grace with overwhelming generosity(9:13-14)?
Let me leave the last words with Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham.
"When Jesus, for the sake of us all, became poor, we became rich; now, when people who follow him are ready to put their resources at his disposal, the world and the church may benefit, not only from the actual money but from the fact that when the Jesus-pattern of dying and rising, of riches-to-poverty-to-riches, is acted out, the power of the gospel is let loose afresh in the world, and the results will be incalculable" (Page 91).
The Salvation Army is carrying out one of the largest responses in its history to the catastrophe along the Gulf Coast. God Bless all Charities and All Giving.
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