Lectionary Commentaries for June 28, 2015
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 5:21-43

James Boyce

A sense of déjà vu accompanies the introduction to today’s reading.

Once again Jesus is in and near the sea and great crowds are gathered around him. In fact the sea and the crowds have shadowed Mark’s narrative for the last several chapters, and it will be helpful to set the context by looking at the way in which today’s narrative is part of a much larger carefully orchestrated mirrored structure:

A. Jesus appoints 12 disciples, one of whom will betray him (Mark 3:13-19)

B. Jesus at home; question of his true relatives (Mark 3:20-35)

C1. Parables of the kingdom; everything in parables; secrecy and hiddenness (Mark 4:1-34)

C2. Disciples at sea; stilling the storm (Mark 4:35-41)

C3. Healing of a demoniac (Mark 5:1-20)

C4. A woman healed and a young girl restored to life (Mark 5:21-43)

B’. Jesus at home in Nazareth; rejection; amazed at their unbelief (Mark 6:1-6)

A’. Jesus sends disciples out in mission to preach and heal (Mark 6:7-13)

All of these events take place around the sea and amid the coming and goings of the crowds who continue to press on Jesus and clamor for his attention. For this the narrative that effectively introduces and summarizes this whole section has already prepared us. Jesus departs with his disciples to the seaside; a great crowd follows him because they are “hearing all that he is doing” (Mark 3:8); he escapes to a boat because of the crowds; the unclean spirits hail him as “Son of God; but Jesus orders them to secrecy (Mark 3:7-12). So the sea and the crowds stalk his “doing” in this section, and now at the beginning of today’s reading, they are still with us. In fact five times we hear of the crowds in this story (for the crowds see: Mark 3.9, 20, 32; Mark 4.1, 36; Mark 5.21, 24, 27, 30, 31). Their presence, the presence of the chaotic sea, the series of miracles, Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom, and the sporadic commands to secrecy all press the issue of faith and our response to this Jesus. We join the disciples’ question as the chaotic sea is calmed at his command: “Who then is this?” (see last Sunday’s reading).

A Two for One Deal

If the totality of these scenes escalates the reader’s sense of awe, then today’s story brings the whole to its climax in a way that prepares for and highlights the succeeding story of Jesus’ rejection; it will take us back to the plots of the Pharisees and Herodians announced in Mark 3:7. But now in a marvelous narrative device so characteristic of Mark two miracle stories — a woman healed and a young girl raised from the dead — are played out in point-counterpoint conversation with one another. The effect is to magnify the impact of the stories and at the same time to focus the issue of healing (salvation) and faith which literally accompany Jesus’ actions.

A Promising Beginning

Once the story locates us among the crowds alongside the sea, without transition, a leader of the synagogue arrives, falls at Jesus’ feet and “begs him repeatedly” (the language exactly repeats that of the demon, Legion, in the previous story, Mark 5:10; it thus effectively pairs these two of the longest stories in Mark’s gospel) for the life of his “dear little daughter” (“that she may be saved and live!”; Mark 5:23). When at this point we are told that without a word of response Jesus “went with him” with the large crowd continuing to press on him, we have every reason to expect a successful outcome. The prayer is right; the purpose is worthy; the prospect of healing and life secured.

An Impatient Interruption

But “now” there is this woman! She not only interrupts the narrative as well as our expectations, but in addition the comparatively lengthy narrative of her medical history and her silent ruminations about her anticipated actions strain our patience. Yet she, too, even in her silence, joins the pleas of the father in anticipation of the “salvation” she seeks. “If only I but touch, I will be made well” (Mark 5:28). Against Jesus’ accusatory seeking for the one “who touched me” the two-fold “immediately” of the narrative will not allow the power that flows from Jesus and the effectiveness of the healing to be disguised.

The Surprise of Faith

Jesus may not know “who,” but the woman certainly knows “what.” In fear and trembling she falls down before Jesus and confesses the truth of what has happened to her. She had hoped for healing, but her hopes were far too small. The fear and illness that have defined her life still have their grip on her. But this is the way of the good news of the gospel. Now Jesus’ words endow her with more than she could ever have imagined. She is no longer just “a woman,” but now is claimed as a “daughter,” one whose “faith” has “made her well” (“saved” her). Now words and a promise have been added to the new reality in her life. She receives Jesus’ benediction that invites her to leave in “peace” (shalom). And almost as an afterthought, by the way, she receives the confirmation that she has been healed of her disease (Mark 5:34)

Faith at Risk

But the story is not yet over. In mid-sentence, while Jesus is still mouthing his benediction on the woman’s faith, people arrive to say that the leader’s daughter has died. In the same instant one person’s hopes have soared; but another’s have been dashed to pieces. One has been claimed as a daughter; another’s daughter has been lost. Faith is clearly at risk. The people put it so clearly, “Why even trouble the teacher any further?” What hope is left?

But Jesus’ words will not let the dashed hopes and fears remain unchecked. “Do not fear, only believe,” he says (Mark 5:36). Only here and in the parallel reading in Luke 8:50 are these two options juxtaposed so clearly in the New Testament. Once again his words call attention to the thin line between fear and faith (see my remarks on the gospel for Pentecost 4). A better translation would also serve to underscore the point. “Do not fear, only believe” fails to represent what Jesus really is saying to the leader and to us. If the command is “do not fear,” then it is already too late, and does not address the leader’s or our reality. The problem is as so often, we are already consumed by fear, and the prospect of faith remains too distant. It should rather be read as something like “Stop being afraid,” and “Go on living by faith.” The present tense of both verbs calls attention to the transforming power of Jesus’ word to change our lives from fear to trust, a transformation in which the prospect of life and salvation now appears in a wholly new dimension.

The Rest of the Story: Amazement and Secrecy

From Jesus’ word of promise, with the prospect of transformation from fear to faith as good as done, it remains for the rest of the story simply to fill in the details. We read them as ones who hold our breath with just a touch of delight as we follow the working out of what we already know to be the outcome. We smile as we oversee the weeping and moaning; we chuckle or wink knowingly at the misplaced laughter of the crowds who do not know what we know. And our hearts are drawn when Jesus takes the little girl by the hand and commands her “Arise” (Once again the word verbally anticipates another resurrection, while the reference to her “twelve years of age” seems whimsically to make this story fit so nicely with the woman’s “twelve year” illness, but otherwise leaves us wondering why this strange detail). We applaud the crowd in their amazement at what has just happened, especially since it matches our own amazement and wonder at these two stories in which faith and salvation and healing have met together in the presence and power of this Jesus. But once again we are left with just a bit of wonder at Jesus’ commands not to tell anyone about these events. Certainly we are invited to continue to ask just where this story intends to lead us. What will it be like to follow this Jesus on the journey of discipleship? In what way will our lives be transformed by this One whose words call us to “stop being afraid” and instead to “live by trust” in the promise of the good news of God’s kingdom among us (Mark 1:14-15)?

First Reading

Commentary on Lamentations 3:22-33

Walter C. Bouzard

At first blush, it appears that the assigned text is a bold declaration of faith and hope in the midst of an unrelenting lamentation over the horrific events surrounding the siege and destruction of Jerusalem.

Indeed, that these verses serve as the only beacon of hope in the entire book is the judgment of a majority of commentators. S. Paul Re’mi’s remark on this passage is typical: “One individual, and only one, it seems, arises with a call of hope, of hope in the mercies of God. Thus, he appeals to his brethren to examine their ways and return to the Lord with all their heart.”1

If, however, these verses serve as the lighthouse of hope in Lamentations, it’s light burns neither bright nor long. As Iain Provan noted some years ago:

“The reader who reads the chapter to the end does not receive an impression of great hopefulness. Nor is the reader who reads the book to the end left with this impression of the book as a whole. Lamentations does not, after all, end with 3:21-27.”2

Resisting the trend to force the chapter (and the book) into an articulation of hope, Provan views chapter 3 as a poem that “is in reality a mixture of hope and despair, and it ends in a plea to God which leaves us balanced on a knife-edge between these two.”3

To the contrary, evidence within the text indicates that the impulse driving Lamentations 3:22-33 (and on to verse 39) is neither autobiographical nor pedagogical but is, instead, rhetorical. The expressions of hope and other pious sentiments that appear in verses 22 to 39 represents the poet’s desperate rhetorical strategy to coerce a response from Yahweh. These verses invoke a series of orthodox confessions and standard wisdom-like teachings that aim to leave the LORD without excuse and with no other option save to resolve the pain of the poet and Jerusalem.4

Ancient Israel’s faith life included a rich tradition whereby the integrity and character of God were held up as reasons for God to act on behalf of the petitioner. One thinks, for example, of Abraham’s intercession on behalf of the citizens of Sodom: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”[5] By acknowledging Yahweh’s sovereignty as Judge, Abraham circumscribes the range of Yahweh’s activities. Whatever else the Judge might do, he must act justly.

Psalm 89 provides another excellent example of orthodox praise employed as a vehicle for compelling the LORD to act. The praise of the LORD’s work in creation (verses 2 to 3) and of the Lord’s promises to David (verses 4 to 5) are expanded in verses 6 to 19 and 20 to 38, respectively. But the balance of the psalm consists of an unrelenting lament about the defeat of the Davidide. The psalmists’ questions to Yahweh are particularly poignant following the extended sections of praise. Considering Yahweh’s sovereignty over the cosmos and in light of Yahweh’s promises to David, what could Yahweh say to the questioning pleas of verses 47 to 49? What excuse could Yahweh offer to the accusation latent in verse 50?

Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

An identical rhetorical strategy appears in Lamentations 3. The poet’s lament in the first twenty verses pauses in verse 21 where he is resolved to “hope,” better translated as “cause myself to adopt an expectant attitude.”6

While he waits, however, the poet marshals a series of well-placed adjectives calculated to impel the LORD to act on his behalf. By characterizing the LORD as merciful and possessing steadfast love (verse 22) as well as faithful (verse 23), the poet evokes a “credo of adjectives”7 that intends to remind the LORD of God’s own identity and character. That is, this is a God who by God’s own nature has demonstrated these characteristics and who ought now, in the poet’s distress, act as his redeemer rather than as his enemy (see 3:1-19).

Verses 25 to 39 articulate traditional attitudes about suffering (and how one might cope with it) such as are found in Israel’s wisdom writings. Like the “comforters” of Job, this portion of the poem exhorts the sufferer to recognize that the LORD’s intentions are benevolent and that, in times of distress, the best course consists of waiting quietly for God’s salvation to arrive (vv. 25-30). It is not Yahweh’s will to reject or afflict (vv. 31-33) and God remains aware of suffering (vv. 34-36). Indeed, avers the poet, the Most High ordains all that happens, both good and bad (vv. 37-38). Therefore, one should not complain of suffering, as it surely must be a consequence of sin (v. 39).

These wisdom teachings articulate the conditions that, from the poet’s perspective, should exist but do not. The world should be one in which God “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (verse 33), but it is not.

Once again, albeit launched from a different starting point in the theological tradition, the “stylized rhetoric of the God of fidelity”8 characteristic of verses 22 to 24 is evoked in verses 25 to 39 as well, albeit in the latter verses the rhetoric focuses on the faith claims articulated most often by Israel’s wisdom traditions. Both professions intend to motivate God to move and to save, the former on grounds of God’s own faithful character and the latter based on wisdom’s general confidence in God’s beneficent management of the world.

That God is not so moved to act remains a problem for the poet and the preacher. The brave words of faith soon dissolve into lament. The poem and the book end with divine silence.

The poet is left without answers, without a divine response — as often are we. This is why the preacher may do well to consider a sermon on the silence of God. What do we do, and how do we carry on in faith when platitudes ring hollow or when they taste like ashes in our mouths when we utter them? How different, after all, is the assertion of some divine albeit unknowable plan in the face of tragedy than the claims of verses 32 to 33? How do we persist in faith when pain continues unabated, when God does not answer, and we are left alone?

In the fullness of the Scripture, of course, we proclaim a God who knows the anguish that inspires lamentation. This God has suffered and taken death God into God’s own life. Moreover, we know through the resurrection of Christ that life, not lament, is God’s answer to our disappointment, pain, and despair.

But that is not yet. We do not yet experience the joy of resurrection; we have only its promise. We have faith, not certitude. The preacher should tell the truth about that. Tell that truth and the verity of this poet’s lamentation. His lament proceeds as lamentation does for all of us: a cry in the enveloping darkness, at the beginning of the watches (2:19) and continuing until we are met, at long last, with the joy of Easter dawn.


1 S. Paul Re’mi, “The Theology of Hope: A Commentary on the Book of Lamentations,” in God’s People in Crisis (ed. Robert Martin-Achard and S. Paul Re’mi: ITC: Edinburgh: Handsel; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984), 76.

2 Iain W. Provan, Lamentations (NCB: Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 22.

3 Provan, Lamentations, 22. Provan is followed by more recent commentators such as Adele Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 86; F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology in the Book of Lamentations,” JSOT 74 (1997), 48–50; and Kathleen M. O’Connor, The Book of Lamentations (NIB, 6:ed. Leander E. Keck: Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 1051, 1057.

4 For a fuller treatment of this thesis, see Walter C. Bouzard, “Boxed by the Orthodox: The Function of Lamentations 3:22-39 in the Message of the Book.” In Why?… How Long? Studies on Voice(s) of Lamentation Rooted in Biblical Hebrew Poetry, edited by LeAnn Snow Flesher, Mark J. Boda, and Carol J. Dempsey (New York: T & T Clark, 2013), pp. 68-82.

5 Gen 18:25 (NRSV).

6 So C. Barth, TDOT 6, 55.

7 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 213–28.

8 Brueggemann, Theology, 221.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

David G. Garber, Jr.

It’s a classic trope of male-bonding and war literature.

The hero of the story suffers the loss of either a compatriot or a mentor. Luke Skywalker loses Obi-Wan to his self-sacrifice on the Death Star; Maverick holds Goose in a Pietà pose in the ocean after his wingman (in both the battlefield and the night club) dies in training; the Avengers finally set their squabbles aside and band together after Loki kills Agent Phil Coulson. In this lectionary text, David loses both a mentor and a friend, even if their relationships have become complicated. Like the mourning of Luke, Maverick, and the Avengers, David recalls only the best details about his friendship with both Saul and Jonathan in his song commemorating their deeds. Likewise, the memory of the fallen propels the hero to even greater achievements as their story continues.

The song does not encompass David’s entire emotional outburst, though. After hearing of the details of Saul’s and Jonathan’s death at the hands of the Amalekite messenger, David rips his clothes and begins to weep and fast for all of the fallen soldiers of Israel (2 Samuel 1:12). He also confronts the Amalekite, who followed Saul’s own orders to end his misery (v. 9). David interrogates, “Were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the LORD’s anointed?” (v. 14) David then orders his men to kill the messenger for this offense.

These details from the intervening story that the lectionary omits are quite important to the interpretation of this passage and of David’s character moving forward in 2 Samuel. They foreshadow David’s future reign (the messenger also brought back Saul’s crown and armlet to give to David in v.10) and flashback to David’s actions and relationships with the two deceased rivals. In 1 Samuel 24, David had a chance to kill Saul himself. Instead, he cut a piece of Saul’s cloak, saying “The LORD forbid that I should do anything to my lord, the LORD’s anointed … for he is the LORD’s anointed” (1 Samuel 24:6). When David and his men have a second chance to kill Saul, David almost prophesies Saul’s demise saying that God will strike him down, he will die of natural causes, or he will die in battle (1 Samuel 26:10). Instead, he exclaims, “The LORD forbid that I should raise my hand against the LORD’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:11). These two chances to kill Saul solidify David’s constant service to his prior master, even though they lived much of their lives at odds.

In his ode to Saul, David warns the enemies of Israel to stay silent and begs that even the land would fast from dew or rain to mourn the death of Israel’s shield, Saul their messiah (the transliteration of the term “anointed”). Even though Samuel had anointed David years earlier (1 Samuel 16:13), David continually recognizes Saul as God’s anointed until Saul’s death. David continues to praise this man and his son, Jonathan, who never retreated from Israel’s enemies: “The bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty” (2 Samuel 1:22).

In addition to his kingly mentor, David loses his best friend, Jonathan. Much of our current fascination with David’s and Jonathan’s relationship stems from this verse of the song: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (v. 26). While some have suggested that this line and its counterpart in 1 Samuel 19:1 suggest either a homosexual or homoerotic relationship between the two biblical figures, we must not forget that this song is poetry, where hyperbole and flowery language find their constant home. I do not say this in order to tear a possible homosexual relationship from the pages of scripture, but to suggest that David here is expressing appreciation for Jonathan’s brotherly companionship (he calls him “my brother”) through very trying times despite the fact that their friendship causes Jonathan to defy Saul, whose desire to kill David drives him mad. Moreover, this is war poetry, the realm where comrades in arms take priority over romantic relationships.

While David’s mourning is national, it is also personal. In it we catch a glimpse of David’s volatile emotional responses. David will mourn several times in his life, including before the death of his firstborn son with Bathsheba and at the death of his most beloved son, Absalom. He will go to war and commit murder (and perhaps he even does this when executing the Amalekite in this chapter). He will know the hate of many men and women in his future, including Jonathan’s sister and Saul’s daughter, Michal, and his own son, Absalom.

Like many chapters to come in 2 Samuel, this is another difficult passage to teach and for congregations to understand. Perhaps, though, it can serve as a passage that helps us understand the raw emotions of war, companionship, and death. Sometimes those emotions compel us to rash actions such as David’s execution of the Amalekite (maybe Saul’s mentorship had more of an impact on David than we like to admit). Sometimes they call for us to enter a stage of mourning. Perhaps, they remind us to take notice of the deeds of our friends before it is too late. In David’s case, Saul’s and Jonathan’s deaths took on a greater importance. No longer does David live in the shadow of another of the LORD’s anointed ones. Now he must, for good and ill in the chapters to follow, take on the mantle of the anointed one that Samuel had bestowed upon him in his youth. His story henceforth becomes much more complex. He will have victories and will also make many mistakes. In this war story, gone are the days of the righteous boy who would be king. David will now become king and face several difficult decisions that have precarious effects for both his family and the nation of Israel.


Commentary on Psalm 30

Joel LeMon

Psalm 30 presents the dramatic ups-and-downs of a life lived in relationship with God.

A study in contrasts

This short prayer of thanksgiving contains a surprisingly large number of antitheses: night and day (v. 5), down and up (vv. 1, 3, 9), weeping and joy (vv. 5, 11), anger and favor (v. 5), absence and presence (v. 7), mourning and dancing (v. 11), sackcloth and party clothes (v. 11). These contrasts reflect the dynamics of a relationship, in this case, the relationship between an individual and a powerful, loving God.

One of the key contrasts in the psalm is that of “up and down,” “high and low.” This “vertical axis” is evident from the very first lines, in which the poet suggests that Yahweh has pulled him up (vv. 1-3). But in what way had the psalmist been down?

Multiple problems have brought the psalmist low. One problem is that the psalmist has enemies (v. 1). While we don’t know how the foes contributed to his suffering, we do know that because of Yahweh’s activity, these enemies no longer have a chance to celebrate his downfall.

The psalmist may also have been brought low by some sort of illness. Verse 2 suggests as much in its statement: “You have healed me.” The Hebrew word for healing (the verb rapha’) can indicate a specific act of physical healing or, more generally, a revival or uplifting.

So we don’t ultimately know if the psalmist’s suffering was somatic or social, or some mixture of the two. All we know is that the psalmist was down and out. In fact, the psalmist was way, way downin Sheol, the Pit (vv. 3, 9), that is to say, the realm of the dead.

In Hebrew thinking, Sheol was a quiet, dark, subterranean world inhabited by the deceased. We should be careful not to conflate this place with many modern notions of Hell, replete with fire, demons, and the devil with a pitchfork. That view of Hell is a relatively new theological idea.

Instead, the psalmist describes himself as in a place profoundly below the thriving, pulsing world of the living. In Sheol, the psalmist would be separated from God. Moreover, the psalmist would be unable to praise God (v. 9) because of the silence that characterizes the underworld.

While some interpreters have understood this text as describing a resurrection from the dead, in its original context such an association is probably not active. Rather, the psalmist presents his suffering as so bad that it has pushed him to the extreme limit of human existence, a position virtually indistinguishable from death.

It’s helpful to remember that ancient understandings of mortality were such that the time of death was seen as a fluid process. Death occurred on a continuum, rather than happening at a fixed point in time. Becoming dead was often considered a slow and ambiguous progression without clear boundaries. And into this shadowy, deathlike existence God has intervened to bring about restoration.

The psalmist’s complete turnabout from death to life prompts him to praise God (vv. 1-3, 6-12) and to call the community to praise God (vv. 4-5). In this testimony of God’s salvation, remarkably, the psalmist credits God as the ultimate source of both weal and woe.

God’s role in suffering and salvation

The psalmist draws a clear connection between Yahweh’s anger and his own suffering (v. 4), suggesting that Yahweh’s emotional state has had a palpable effect on his wellbeing. Likewise, the psalmist describes his suffering in terms of the absence of God, the times when God had hidden God’s face (v. 7).

As such, this psalm engages, albeit briefly, in the complex intrabiblical conversation about the nature of suffering and God’s role in it. To be sure, the Bible does not speak with one voice on this issue. At various points, the biblical texts suggest that suffering arises because of human activity, divine activity, or divine inactivity. Taken as a whole, the witness of Scripture cautions against any totalizing theory of the ultimate cause of suffering.

Whatever one’s doctrinal positions about God’s role in suffering, most of us can recall the experience of suffering so severe that God seems absent from us (v. 7) or angry with us (v. 8). The psalm thus has the power to resonate deeply with many. It can bear witness to the validity of many people’s experiences of severe suffering and lowliness.

It is not clear whether the psalmist thinks that Yahweh’s anger and absence is justified or not, whether he is being punished or simply the victim of divine caprice. We simply hear that, in some way, Yahweh is the cause of his suffering.

Yet it would be missing the point of the psalm to hear this statement as the most important message of the psalm. In fact, the psalm’s major accent is on God’s acts of salvation rather than God causing pain. God’s anger is momentary, while God’s favor lasts a lifetime (v. 5). God’s absence is a deeply painful experience, but God’s presence means joy (v. 5).

Each of the contrasts in the psalm (vv. 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11) resolves in a positive direction thanks to the powerful intervention of God. The psalm’s overwhelming theological witness is that God sets wrong situations aright. And that salvation has a powerful effect on the psalmist and the community.

Thanks to God’s work, the psalmist is compelled to praise God. He cannot remain silent (v. 12). At the brink of the silence of death, he found a voice to cry out to God (vv. 2, 8). He has not stopped crying out since. Now, instead of pained cries in the context of prayer, he cries out songs of praise and calls the community to do the same (vv. 4-5).

God has the power to reach down into to the lives of the mostly lowly and despised people. God can pull us up.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Lois Malcolm

How is the proclamation of the gospel related to the needs of the poor among us?

There is no question that an important aspect of Paul’s apostolic ministry was raising funds for the poor in Jerusalem. Not only would the collection address some very real economic needs — Jewish congregations tended to be poorer than their gentile counterparts — but it would also reinforce unity and reconciliation between Jewish and gentile Christians.1 Paul’s apostolic approach to raising funds for the poor has profound implications for how we too might relate the confession of the gospel of Christ to sharing our wealth with the poor.

  1. Grace and testing

Paul’s use of the Greek word charis — usually translated as “grace” — provides us with a clue for how to relate confessing the gospel to sharing wealth with the poor. The word occurs quite frequently in chapters 8 and 9 and is used to refer not only to God’s grace and Christ’s grace but also to the generosity that overflows in us as a result of divine grace.

The word charis, however, is only translated as “grace” in 2 Corinthians 8:1 and 2 Corinthians 9:14. Elsewhere it is translated as “privilege” (2 Corinthians 8:4), “generous undertaking” (2 Corinthians 8:6-7, 19), “generous act” (2 Corinthians 8:9), “blessing” (2 Corinthians 9:8), and “thanks” (2 Corinthians 8:16; 9:15). But what if we translated all these instances of charis with the English word “grace,” allowing Paul’s own use of this word in these chapters to determine what the word means?

Paul begins his discussion of the collection by referring to the grace of God granted to the Macedonian churches who, in spite of their affliction and poverty, “overflowed” (eperisseusen) with a wealth of generosity for others (2 Corinthians 8:1). The Macedonians had begged Paul and his coworkers for the grace of sharing in this ministry of the saints (2 Corinthians 8:4) and affirmed as well that Paul should send Titus to complete the grace of collecting the funds he had already begun collect from the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8:6).

Paul now urges the Corinthians as well to follow Macedonians’ example and “overflow” in this grace as well. They already “overflow” with everything else — faith, speech, knowledge, every eagerness, and the love fellow Christians have for them — so why not also overflow in this grace (2 Corinthians 8:7)?

Paul makes clear that this is not a command but a “test” of the genuineness of their love against the eagerness of others. Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the word for “test” — as a verb (dokimazo) and a noun (dokime) — to refer to the way our true character — who we really are — is discerned, examined, or proven when faced with difficulties or challenges.2

  1. Christ as example

The main warrant for his appeal is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though rich, Christ became poor for our sakes so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). Earlier in the letter Paul has depicted how Christ, in spite of being sinless, was made to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13, 14). And in Philippians, he describes how Christ, though sharing equality with God, emptied himself — even to the point of death on a cross — so he might be exalted and we too might share in his life with one another (Philippians 2:1-11).

  1. Desiring and completing

So how might this overflow of God’s and Christ’s grace, which is already overflowing in the Macedonians, also overflow in the Corinthians? Continuing with his point that this is not a command but merely an “opinion,” Paul says that it would be appropriate for them at this time not only to desire to do so, but also to complete the collection they have already started. Their gift’s acceptability is based on two things: their eagerness to give and that they give only what is within their means to give — what they have, not what they do not have (2 Corinthians 8:10-11).

  1. Equality in abundance and need

How does this overflowing grace and generosity get lived out in our lives? Paul makes clear that this is not about relieving some and afflicting others; it is not about letting some off the hook and making others feel guilty. Rather, it is about the equality or fairness (isotes) — the true reciprocity — that God’s reconciliation of the entire world makes possible. One’s overflow or abundance is to meet another’s need, and vice versa, so that both might be there for one another in all instances of abundance and of need — spiritual or monetary. Just as the Israelites shared equitably the bread that rained down from heaven, so we too are called to share our wealth so that some do not have too much and others do not have too little (2 Corinthians 8:15; Exodus 16:18).

God’s reconciliation of the entire world through Christ overflows into our lives — through the exchange of Christ’s wealth for our poverty — so that we too might overflow in the profound “sharing” (koinonia) of all things with one another. This overflow or excess of grace through Christ is an overflow and excess that spills out into all aspects of our lives. Abundantly supplying all our needs, God’s grace gives us power not only to forgive and be reconciled with one another, but also to share our wealth with one another.

Paul’s insights into the overflowing import of God’s reconciliation of the entire world through Christ continues to have profound relevance for our day when grave inequalities between rich and poor only continue to deepen in our country and throughout the world. Like the Corinthians, we too undergo the “testing” of our ministry — and reveal who and whose we really are — in all that we are and do. We too glorify God by confessing the gospel of Christ even as we also generously engage in sharing (koinonia) who we are and all that we have with one another, especially in times of need (2 Corinthians 9:13).


1 In addition to 2 Corinthians 8-9, see also Rom 15:25-32; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Galatians 2:10; also Acts 24:17.

2 For uses of “test” in 2 Corinthians, see 2:9; 8:2, 8, 22; 9:13; 13:3, 5.