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Politics of Scripture

A Gift Received in the Giving—2 Corinthians 8:7-15

The clear distinction between the Christian works of mercy and generic social activism and charity work is often forgotten, leading to a fraught relationship between them and the Christian gospel message. In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offers us a better way.

7Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

8I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—11now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15As it is written,

‘The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.’

Our Lord preached a message of good news to the poor, yet for many of his followers today the gospel message and Christian concern for the poor stand in uncertain and uneasy relation. Although few would deny that Christians have an especial duty to the poor, maintaining this duty in the context of a full-bodied Christian faith has proved surprisingly challenging.

For some, the Christian message that summons people to the works of mercy can be reduced to a vanishing mediator for a generic message of social justice and welfare. Christ’s teaching and example may be invoked to underwrite and inspire the moral fervency of a secularized social activism, yet, in the final analysis, he may prove dispensable for it.

Typically coupled with this is a shift from Christ to the government as the agent who must effect the awaited kingdom’s advent, and from the Church to secular society as its focal community. Christ ceases to be set forth as the king of the coming kingdom—the one to whom every knee must bow—being diminished in stature to the level of a mere moral teacher, exemplar, and vocal advocate for social justice. A smile of universal benevolence lingers as, like the Cheshire Cat, Christ himself gradually disappears.

In other quarters, concerns about the wayward trajectory of a ‘social gospel’ (coupled with wariness about the over-emphasizing of ‘works’ among Protestants), have led many conservative Christians theologically to minimize the importance of Christian charity. Lest it come to displace Christ in his centrality, Christian charity must be handled as a matter of secondary, peripheral, or even extraneous concern.

Yet, when we read passages such as 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, a vision of Christian praxis emerges for which the works of mercy operate in a close and inseparable relation with the specific claims of the Christian gospel.

The modern reader of the Pauline epistles, who often hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the book of Acts, can easily fall into the trap of regarding the Apostle Paul principally as a thinker, whose travels, church-planting, and charitable work were largely incidental to his theological labors. That the Pauline corpus consists of occasional letters to particular parties is also often a fact passed over without reflection. Yet both a careful reading of the epistles and of the book of Acts reveals that the various dimensions of the Apostle Paul’s labors were firmly bound up together.

As the Apostle to the Gentiles, one of Paul’s chief goals was to establish the union of Jewish and Gentile Christians in a single household, functioning according to a single economy of grace. His theological work consistently undergirds and propels his practical labors.

Whether in letter-writing, travelling and missionary work, dispatching fellow workers to various parts of the Church, or in the raising of charitable funds for Christians in Jerusalem, the Apostle Paul tirelessly labored to forge a unified ‘economy’ and communication network between churches across the Roman Empire. In the circulation of Pauline epistles, for instance, specific churches passed on both the revelation given to them and their examples to other churches, borne by messengers who would serve the receiving church in the name of the sending church and enjoy hospitality in return.

In this passage, Paul encourages the Corinthians Christians in their raising of a financial gift for the Christians in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1-4). As he does in places such as Romans 15:25-27, Paul presents a rich theological and rhetorically shrewd rationale for his charitable work, mobilizing key themes of his epistles to encourage those receiving them to these endeavors.

The opening verse of our reading exhibits some of this, as Paul frames the gift for the Jerusalem Christians in terms of the grace the Corinthians have themselves received. Especially striking is the way that Paul presents the giving that he is calling the Corinthians to as simultaneously a divine gift that he is desiring to see them abound in, a gift of which the Macedonian churches are exemplary recipients (verses 1-2). In their practice of liberality, the Corinthians will receive the divine gift of giving.

Here we see a logic that is more fully developed in the chapter that follows, where Paul speaks of God’s abounding gift of his grace as that which makes possible our own liberality, by giving us to participate in his own giving (9:6-15—note the way that the gifts of the Spirit in Pauline theology function as divine gifts by which members of Christ’s body are given to re-present and participate in God’s gift of the Spirit to the whole). In such a manner, the liberal giver is the one who most fully receives. This paradox is characteristically Pauline, and perhaps especially fitting in the book of 2 Corinthians, within which a power-in-weakness paradox is foregrounded in later chapters.

Paul proceeds to speak of Christ, who was rich, becoming poor so that through his poverty we might become rich (verse 9). The relationship between poverty and riches in this statement also has elements of paradox, akin to those of James 1:9-10—“Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.”

The heavenly ‘riches’ that we have been given are discovered through a ‘spiritual orientation’ that most readily grows in the soil of material poverty, a ‘dependence upon God and openness to his Kingdom’ [Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 98]. God’s riches are received in spiritual poverty, something which the puffed-up Corinthians often failed to exhibit.

Paul’s purposeful avoidance of command in favor of exhortation (verse 8) is also both noteworthy and typical. For the Corinthians’ act of giving to have its appropriate character, it must be done by their own volition, not under any compulsion or burdensome obligation. Paul is pointedly not imposing a tax, but is rather encouraging the Corinthians to come into the fuller possession of a gift and to follow the example of Christ, so that the fruitfulness of their gratitude and the abundance of their giving will redound to God’s own glory.

Paul, then, seeks to summon the Corinthians into the freedom of the abundant gift of Christ, in the full receipt of which they would overflow in joyful giving. As elsewhere, Paul’s conviction that the Spirit fulfils the Law in the hearts of Christians leads him to adopt a rhetoric of persuasion and exhortation, appealing to the will liberated by the Spirit, for which the paths of the Law’s fulfilment will be paths of freedom.

The notion of ‘equality’ (ι̕̕σότης) in verse 14 should probably be read against a Greek background, where it was connected both with accounts of friendship and with politics. In the first place, in ministering to the needs of the Judean Christians, the Corinthians would be expressing the reality of the ‘fellowship of … the saints’ (verse 4). In the second place, the ministering of Gentile Christians to Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would be a striking political gesture: “the politically superior inhabitants of a Roman colony must demonstrate their submission to conquered provincials in Jerusalem, in order to achieve ‘equality’.”

The ‘equality’ advocated for here, as in the case of the oneness spoken of in Galatians 3:28, shouldn’t be confused for some generalized egalitarian commitment on Paul’s part. It is an equality grounded firmly in the apocalyptic event of Christ’s action and in the new reality of the Church, not in some liberal convictions that Paul holds about human persons and society as such.

The fact that the Jerusalem Christians are to be the recipients of the gift is not insignificant either. The ‘equality’ that Paul calls for relates to the reciprocity described in Romans 15:25-27:

At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.

In the giving of such gifts, the bond between Jews and Gentiles in the Church would be strengthened and a fellowship galvanized through the reciprocal ministry of the gifts of Christ. This giving is a decidedly theological act.

Paul’s reference to Exodus 16:18 is arresting in the context for many reasons. It comes from the account of God’s providential gift of manna to the children of Israel during the Exodus and Paul’s use of it in this context is quite remarkable.

Our initial impression might be that Paul’s use of the verse is somewhat at odds with its original context. In Exodus the verse relates to the perfect sufficiency of God’s provision for needs of each of the Israelite families. However, in 2 Corinthians 8, Paul uses the same verse to bolster his appeal to the Corinthians—the ones who have much—to give to the Jerusalem Christians—the ones who have little.

The equality is not immediately established in the divine act of provision itself, but will only be realized through the participation of the Corinthians in ministering to the Jerusalem Christians. This, however, fits with the greater themes of these chapters: the gift and provision of God is to be ministered and enjoyed through and in the gifts of his people to each other.

The allusion to the gift of the manna might also excite other connections in the minds of the hearers of this passage. It relates the early Christian Church to the Exodus generation and implicitly situates them within the Messianic Age, as L.L. Welborn suggests. As they are being led out of the Egypt of sin and death by Christ, they are being fed by him (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4).

A further possible connection would be to the celebration of the Eucharist. The Christians’ sharing in the bread of the Eucharist corresponded with the Israelites’ feeding on the manna (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:3). However, while the manna was gathered in an equal manner, the Eucharistic bread is to be distributed in an equal manner. By means of the manna allusion, Paul may subtly conceptually relate the Eucharist to the distribution of resources between Christians in the ministry of gifts (note also the reference to communion—κοινωνία—in verse 4). Thus the implication is that the Eucharist must be validated in the practice of the works of mercy and ministry in the body of Christ.

Returning to where we began, although contemporary Christian approaches to charity are often only loosely expressive of deeper Christian theological convictions, and thus at risk of either displacing or eclipsing them or being marginalized for the sake of them, Paul’s theology manifests no such weakness. Rather, Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians is grounded in and their practice will be an affirmation both of the union of Jews and Gentiles in one body in Christ and the shape of the Christ event. It is expressive of their situation in the New Exodus of the Messianic Age, a blessed participation in the liberality of God’s own gift in Christ, and an enjoyment of the freedom of the will liberated by the Spirit.

Rediscovering the foundation of Christian charity in the gospel enables us to rediscover the significance of the works of mercy as witness to the truth of the Christ event and revelatory of the beauty of its form. Whether Christians sideline the works of mercy in order to maintain the primacy of the ‘gospel’, or pursue them in ways that uproot them from the uniqueness of the Christian kerygma, the New Testament teaching on the subject is being abandoned.

However, in the faithful exercise of Christian charity, we bear testimony to the abundant and overflowing gift that God has given us in Christ and to the freedom that we are granted to participate in his liberality. In societies defined by the opposition between rich and poor, we bear testimony to divine riches received in spiritual poverty, calling the poor to the spiritual orientation appropriately corresponding to their material condition and the rich both to their responsibility to and their need to follow the example of the poor. In atomized societies, we bear testimony to a social body that crosses class and socioeconomic boundaries, holding people together in a loving communion of mutual service and regard and also uniting them in a desire to serve those without.

In such respects, Christian charity far exceeds secular charity in its political consequences. In it is disclosed an event that proceeds any human initiative or instigation, a divine beneficence that has burst forth in history and which is beyond all containment. It reveals a new economy that escapes the logic of scarcity, a gift which is received in the giving. It arises from a new liberating impulse that is the Spirit’s work within us. It subverts the hierarchical opposition between rich and poor that secular charity all too typically reinforces. And it binds giver and receiver together in a communion of reciprocal service. Practised faithfully, a pale reflection of a kingdom beyond all earthly kingdoms can be seen within it.

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,

‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness endures for ever.’

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.

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