2 Corinthians 8:7-15
I have mentioned elsewhere in these pages that I have never been overly enthusiastic about the Apostle Paul. Perhaps I have latent Judaizing tendencies, like so many of Paul's opponents in the early church, or perhaps it is because I have such a difficult time negotiating some of his convoluted sentences. I have come to suspect, however, that I have not spent enough time trying to understand the man in his highly complex and dynamic socio-historical context. In fact, when I look at the lectionary passage for this week, I cannot help but feel empathy for him, not to mention an enormous respect for his fortitude.
Consider the situation. A year or so has transpired since he last visited Corinth and in that time much has happened in the congregation to give him pause for great concern. Shortly after his departure a delegation of apostles – true apostles, to hear them tell it – arrived from Jerusalem and immediately attended to the task of putting out all the theological fires that had been set by the upstart convert from Tarsus. The congregation had already suffered considerably from various divisions and strife. Recall the controversies of I Corinthians: some in the church claimed loyalty to the golden-tongued Apollos while others maintained their fealty to Paul; rich and poor celebrated separate communal meals; tongue-speakers felt compelled to lord their spiritual gift over those differently inclined. And the resurrection – some were denying it. With Paul unable to defend himself, the delegation from the Holy City – from the very congregation of "poor saints" for whom the Apostle had worked so earnestly in taking up a collection (I Cor. 16:1-4) – had little trouble stirring the waters of an already turbulent, and no doubt confused, community of believers. They did not accept Paul's apostolic status, for he never knew Jesus "according to the flesh."
But despite the very real possibility that his letter would be poorly received, Paul is able somehow to set aside his human tendency to feel hurt, to feel betrayed, to feel abandoned, and trudge forward, keeping the eyes of his heart ever on Christ. While his Jerusalem opponents appear to have acted in an aggressive and authoritarian manner, Paul chooses instead the path of gentle persuasion, of encouragement:
I do not say this as a command…. For 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. And 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 doing something – now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means (8:8-12).
And this is only an introduction to what he most fervently desires, the task he set before this congregation prior to his departure over a year ago, which now seems all but inconceivable to those of lesser spiritual dispositions: raising funds for the poor saints of Jerusalem, for the church that had apparently spawned the troublesome delegation.
I will admit that I am one of a lesser spiritual disposition. If I were in Paul's situation I would have shaken the Corinthian dust from my feet even before writing my first letter. I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I just don't have that much patience with people, let alone a congregation. Had I been in Paul's sandals, I would have moved on to bigger and better things.
But this overlooks the point doesn't it? First of all, there are no bigger and better things than modeling the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and what better means of doing so than continuing the work of relief for the poor, even despite their questionable leadership? Second, this task is doomed to failure apart from the spiritual poverty that must precede it – that is, apart from emptying oneself of all envy and greed, of all self-righteousness and entitlement, so that the Spirit finds no encumbrances in her work as Comforter, as Sustainer. Had it been Paul alone coming to terms with the wayward souls of Corinth, he would have simply thrown up his hands and been done with it all. This would be the all-too-human response. But it was the Apostle who set pen to paper in this second letter, and that makes all the difference.
Paul's perseverance and Christ-mindedness are all the more instructive for us as we continue to feel our way through a broken economy and address the many difficulties it presents for us. I think the natural tendency in these times is to turn inward and simply attend to our basic needs and not waste too much energy on what lies beyond our limited frame of reference. We prefer to deal with the problems of Corinth and turn a blind eye to the poor saints of Jerusalem living a world away. But we who have too much refuse to empty ourselves to the Spirit when we choose to ignore the cries of those reeling from the social obscenity of having too little.
Just this week the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization revised its estimate of the number of people worldwide who are living in "food insecurity," a nicely sanitized way of saying "dying of starvation." In such a global context, where one in every six bearers of the image of God is hungry, can we truly afford not to follow Paul's example, Christ's example, of choosing spiritual, and at least some form of material poverty so that we – and perhaps most important, others around the world – might become rich?
The path that lies ahead for the church is perhaps more difficult than it has ever been given what many perceive to be its increasing irrelevance in the affairs of the world. In the past we have been faithful and somewhat successful at gathering our resources and funding relief efforts in every corner of the globe. But the climate has changed, and it appears that what has worked so well – by which I mean, so conveniently – in the past will need now to be severely amended, and this in keeping with the example of Christ. Our hope for the future lies not so much in what we are able to give, but in what we are willing to give up; not in what we are able to do, but in our willingness to do without.
From the perspective of one living in the U.S., it is appallingly evident that the excesses of my Corinth have been achieved at the great expense of so many poor saints of Jerusalem. The time has come for me, and perhaps many of us, to reconsider the vital wisdom of both spiritual and material poverty, or at least a life of greater simplicity. Every time I ask what I can give I will also take a careful inventory and consider what exactly I might also give up. The old Shaker hymn still has much to commend: "'tis a joy to be simple."
In concluding this section of his letter, Paul wisely draws on a tradition that both he and the Jerusalem delegation can uphold as authoritative, and it is one that still informs the church today, though in some places more than others. What better metaphor for the human condition than the experience of a people, a community, wandering in the desert, altogether dependent on the unwarranted grace of a liberating God who provides manna from heaven? But this manna is a gift with limitations, offered not that some may gorge themselves and become fat while others go completely without – a reality that many of us know all too well -- but so that a sense of equality (Paul's very word, isoteis) may abound and thus reflect the singular essence of the Kingdom of God: that "those who have much do not have too much, and those who have little do not have too little."
And These Questions Remain
1. If "too little" can be described as an amount insufficient for sustaining the quality of human life -- what roughly 1.02 billion people worldwide experience each day -- then by what criteria do we determine what is "too much"? Will Americans ever deal honestly with this important question?
2. For what cause or project would I be willing to take up a collection with a zeal and perseverance equal to that of Paul?
Of Related Interest
1. See the World Food Programme's A Billion for a Billion Campaign, appealing to the world's 1.6 billion web users to address the needs of the world's 1.02 billion hungry.