2 Corinthians 8:7-15
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Landon Parvin tells a story about a charity organization’s chairperson’s visit to an infamous miser. “Sir,” the fund-raiser told him, “Our records show that despite your wealth, you’ve never even once given to our drive.”
“Do your records show that I have an elderly mother who was left penniless when my father died?” the man fumed. “Do your records show that I have a disabled brother who is unable to work? Do your records show that I have a widowed sister with small children who can barely make ends meet?”
“No sir,” the embarrassed volunteer stuttered. “Our records don’t show those things.” “Well,” the miser huffed, “I don’t give to any of them, so why should I give anything to you?”
Charity, the grace of giving, isn’t always easy.
Today, in his Second Letter to the church at Corinth, St. Paul encourages the church to live into the gift of charity—the grace of giving.
A bit of context is in order. As you may recall, Paul was a devout Jew who beheld the risen Christ in a vision and became a Christian. His calling, as he received it, was to bring the Gospel (the Good News) to non-Jews, to the Gentiles. This sounds inoffensive enough to ourselves—but at the time, it raised serious questions and caused a deep rift—specifically between the Jewish followers of Christ and the Gentile followers of Christ. Had Jesus come only for Jews, or could Gentiles be included under our Savior’s banner of grace? How do these two peoples become one?
For Paul, one way of bridging this gap was to collect funds for the community of Jewish followers of Christ in Jerusalem, led by James. This offering is both practical as well as symbolic. Practical, in that it was intended to assist those in need; and symbolic because it appeals to Unity for the early church. For Paul, he saw the collection of gifts from the Gentiles that was to be brought to Jerusalem as representing the bringing of Gentiles to the Holy City.
In the passage for today from Corinthians Paul is appealing for funds. It seems the community of Corinth had begun collecting money, but was now flagging in its effort. So Paul writes: “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 to do something—now finish doing it. Paul was urging his followers on.
For Paul, giving (charity) is a grace. In his mind, God’s people should want to give generously because it’s a virtue. And not just any virtue; Paul tells us this is a divine gift from God that God expects us to apply in thankful response to God’s saving grace. To put it bluntly, it’s part of our grateful reception of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Those who are followers of Christ are to be grateful and generous givers. But—before you think that Paul is urging the Corinthians on to give to their financial detriment, he advocates for balance…fairness. In essence, what he’s saying is “you said you would support this cause, now follow through.’ You don’t have to give what you don’t have, but everyone should give according to his or her ability or capacity. All this, so that “the ones who have much do not have too much, and the ones who have little do not have too little.” Striking a fair balance is what is right in the mind of St. Paul.
That’s a piece of good advice. For many folks, the adage that “Charity begins at home.” means that “Charity stays at home” and it’s all too frequently used as a means to limit the extension of our bounty solely to those people and places with whom we share a common life or ideology. Sometimes we hear this expressed as “We should send money to other parts of the world only once we’ve seen to it that all the needy in our country have been taken care of.”; knowing full well that this is not ever going to happen in our lifetime. It’s a means of absolving ourselves from responsibility for the care of others. And, let’s face it, if we dare to look closely at our motives, all too frequently it’s also a means of expressing xenophobia and racism.
However, we have some fine examples on our side. In 1847 the Choctaw Nation sent $170 to help the victims of the Irish potato famine. This amounts to approximately $5,000 in today’s money. Take heed of the date—1847 isn’t so long after what is known as the “Indian Removal”—and the Trail of Tears where native Americans endured a forced migration to Oklahoma. Gathering that money could not have been easy for an impoverished people, stripped of their homes and resources—and yet, these people, who had endured plenty of suffering of their own, marshalled their meager resources and sent money to a people in a distant land whom they had never met.
Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID Crisis which has disproportionally affected Native Americans, and especially those living on reservations. The Irish reciprocated that generosity first sent to them in 1847 by collecting more than $1 million dollars to contribute to a fund to help the Choctaw Nation deal with their current crisis. (Guardian, May 9, 2020)
Generosity builds bridges. It closes gaps. It helps to bring unity where before there was division—whether that division is felt by different languages, cultures, backgrounds, faiths—or even the geographical division of an ocean.
St. Paul’ uses the words “gift” and “grace” interchangeably. Notice, he never commands the people of Corinth to be generous—you can’t command someone to exhibit a quality which is a gift of God. What he is doing is encouraging them toward this grace by comparing their self-giving with the self-giving of Christ. Having said this, it’s also worth noting that Paul is not suggesting that their gift is somehow paying back God’s generosity nor is he suggesting that their generosity is going to benefit them by helping them reap financial and spiritual rewards in the future. He’s simply telling them that stewardship—striking a fair balance—is about living a Christ-shaped life. When you get right down to it, it’s about doing to others what you would have them do to you. It’s the Golden Rule. Let’s live it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.