Lectionary Commentaries for July 1, 2012
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 5:21-43

Emerson Powery

Two Healings in One (story)

In this chapter, Mark describes Jesus healing two daughters of Israel.

Jesus had just performed a successful exorcism of a non-Jewish person (cf. 5:1-20).  In our passage, Jesus returns to the “Jewish” side (or, the “other side”; cf. 5:21) to find a large crowd.

The Healing of an Unnamed Woman

Despite earlier stories in the Gospel of Mark (cf. 1:21-27; 3:1-6), Jesus was not opposed by all of the Jewish leadership.  Jairus was a good example.  He sought out the popular healer to assist his daughter.  Yet, Jesus’ path to Jairus’ house was interrupted by a crowd (cf. 5:24).  More specifically, an unnamed woman, approached Jesus secretly — unlike the named religious leader — because of the socio-religious dynamics of the day.  Mark wants readers to interpret these two distinctive accounts in light of each other.  His “sandwich” technique (or, intercalation) is common in the larger narrative, especially in stories when women were involved (e.g., 3:20-25; 5:21-43; 6:7-44; 14:1-11).

This was a bold woman, who approached (albeit, secretly) without a male sponsor (compare Jairus).  But, in light of her condition as one whose “impurity” (cf. Leviticus 15:25-30) could have cut her off from the religious community and from financial stability, she may not have had a choice but to act daringly.  [Since Mark omits the particular word for “impurity” or “menstruation” (aphedros; cf. Leviticus 15:25), interpreters should not overemphasize the implications of this story as a purity/impurity issue.]

She had “suffered a lot” under the care of the medical practitioners (5:26).  Attention from the professionals was usually reserved for elite persons.  The “suffering” remains ambiguous but may relate to length of time, severity of pain, or social scorn under the “care” of the specialists (5:26).  Other women, throughout history, have had to act in this manner to retain their human dignity.  Phyllis Wheatley published her poems, under the scrutiny of Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, and numerous other (white) intellectuals of the day.  Jarena Lee, the first ordained female minister, pursued her God-given call to preach.  Mother Parks wouldn’t give up her seat.

This unnamed woman spoke and these words provide insight into the woman’s thinking and theological perspective (5:28).  Not only touching him but touching even his clothes may provide healing from diseases. This theological rationale was confirmed by her healing. 

Just as the woman understood the changes in her body, so Jesus recognized a change in his body.  [Jesus initially played no active role in her healing.]  The drying up of her blood flow (i.e., her “discharge”) was due to the “discharge” of Jesus’ “power” (dunamis in 5:30).  But no one else — including the disciples — recognized what had leaked out/transpired.  Not even Jesus was fully aware of what had happened.  Jesus was unwilling to allow the outflow of his “power” to occur without acknowledgement. The “stealing” of a healing miracle was inappropriate.  It was one thing for him to touch others (e.g., 1:41; 3:10) but another matter altogether for persons to touch him.

“Fear,” not boldness, provoked the woman to come forward this time.  Yet, she presented herself to him to reveal the “whole truth” (5:33).  She did not have to return.  She could have escaped with her healing intact.  But she apparently understood his intense look (perieblepeto, a common Markan term usually reserved for Jesus’ glare [3:5, 34; 5:32; 10:23; 11:11]) and may have recognized the potential for public shame if she were caught by this male healer.  The cultural weight of her situation demanded her return.

How many members of that crowd must have felt skittish after hearing the “truth” that her vaginal bleeding-self had come into contact with so many of them before the healing!  [Since the author reserved the term “truth” only for Jesus — who “teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth” (12:14) — and this woman, this was another courageous act on her part!] 

After his initial “glare” (periblepeto) at the crowd and surroundings, Jesus’ reaction was rather surprising.  What flowed from him (“power”) earlier healed her.  Now, what flowed from her (“truth”) would bring forth healing, confirming words: “Daughter, your faith has made you well!”

The Healing of Jairus’ Daughter

The narrative returns to the journey to Jairus’ house.  The delay — to “heal” and “converse” with the unnamed woman — led to a report from Jairus’ household that his daughter had already died. Jesus was too late.  “While he was still speaking” (verse 35) words of affirmation and confirmation to the daring woman whose “faith” had made her well, bad news arrived: “your daughter has died.”  But Jesus’ reaction to this news reminds us of what enslaved African Americans of the 19th century sang, “God may not come when you call him, but he’ll be there right on time!”  Despite the way circumstances looked, there was a firm belief in the sovereignty of God.

Jesus challenged Jairus to hold on to his faith (i.e., “only believe”), a faith that led him to the healer in the first place.  Jesus, also, took further action.  He reduced the number of potential witnesses to three — Peter, James, and John — an inner group who would also receive other special revelations at the transfiguration (9:2-8) and in Gethsemane (14:32-42).  This reduction of witnesses would continue after the tear-wearied circle at Jairus’ home ridiculed Jesus’ assessment of the situation (5:40).

Similar to earlier healing stories, Jesus touches the young lady (cf. 1:40-45).  Her “young” age may be an indicator that she was of marriageable age; some scholars place the appropriate age a few years later.  Unlike earlier healing accounts, Jesus speaks Aramaic here: talitha cumi.  Because of his audience, Mark translates the words (cf. 7:34; 14:36; 15:34), while the other Gospels omit the foreign words altogether.  A Greek speaking audience, Jewish or not, might think that the strange words are part of some healing formula; Mark’s translation tried to offset this idea.  

Finally, Jesus wanted “silence” about this healing, like many performed on the Jewish side of the lake.  Also, he requested food for the raised girl, suggesting the holistic mission that showed his care for all needs — spiritual, physical, emotional, psychological, and political.  This 12-year old daughter of Jairus, a number that reminded readers of the earlier “daughter” of Jesus (verse 34), probably began her own “bleeding” (a symbol of life) around this age.

Culturally, she was approaching the age customary for marriage.  She was born in the same year when the woman began incessant bleeding.  Yet, in the same year both were healed.  One stopped bleeding, which restored her life.  The other had her life restored, so that she could continue to “bleed” and eventually produce life.

Second, issues of impurity may lie below the surface of the entire narrative.  But this story is not a challenge to the purity system.  Rather, this unnamed woman was restored (to purity?).  Unlike the healing of a man with leprosy (cf. 1:40-45), Jesus did not command this woman to present herself to a priest for confirmation.  Yet, first century (Jewish) culture may have recognized in this bleeding woman, and dead girl the potential for impure contact with Jesus . . . but he didn’t hesitate to bring restoration. 

Summary for Preaching

Jesus’ life, along with his death, grants life-changing healing.  It is a healing authority that crosses boundaries, both ethnic (cf. 5:1-20) and gender ones (cf. 5:21-43).  Jesus chooses not to leave people in the conditions in which he finds them.  And he has the power to alter that condition.

Do we?  Can the Christian community alter the conditions of people’s lives?  Can it, too, bring healing into troubled circumstances?  Must it not also cross boundaries — whether they are related to ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, politics or any other boundaries that divide our society — and advocate life-giving meaning and change?  May God grant us the courage to do so!

First Reading

Commentary on Lamentations 3:22-33

Fred Gaiser

What if the center cannot hold, as William Butler Yeats feared in his famous poem, “The Second Coming”?

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

Yeats’s poem reflects the situation in post-World War I Europe, but it seems to apply equally well today and perhaps also in the time of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem reflected in the book of Lamentations.

With our text we are at the center of that book, and we hear a kind of measured hope in the midst of that great destruction, but can the center hold? True, the poet confesses the creed: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end,” but it seems that, given the terror of the siege of Jerusalem, he has had to remind himself of it (see 3:21). And the confidence soon gives way to a kind of resignation: “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth…to give one’s cheek to the smiter.” Nevertheless, confidence and confession return: “For the Lord will not reject forever….[F]or he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”

The poet believed those things, at least here in the middle of the book, but, to take up our refrain once more, can the center hold? The last verse of the book of Lamentations calls this hope into terrible question: “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22). Though the Hebrew word for “reject” is not the same in 3:31 and 5:22, the notion is the same: The Lord will not reject forever…unless he does!

To hear that is to hear the terror of theological nihilism that haunts Lamentations. What if the center cannot hold? What if God cannot hold? God’s steadfast love endures forever, says the creed; but what if it does not? What if God has “utterly rejected us”? This would be not only the death of “us,” but the death of God. Can that be what is faced by those hunkered down in the destroyed “city of God”?

Our text marks not only the creedal center of Israel’s faith, but the literary center of the book of Lamentations. Chapter 3 holds up words of cautious hope, surrounded on each side by two chapters of deepest lament. And the book finally dribbles away with the horrible possibility that the whole God/Israel thing might be at an end. What if the center cannot hold?

We have heard this kind of thing before, of course — “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil” (Psalm 23:4). We cannot understand the significance of the words of hope in the Psalter (“The Lord is my shepherd”) if we do not hear them uttered in the midst of the darkest valley — just as our confession in Lamentations is affirmed in the midst of the terrifying threat of the loss of all meaning, the loss of the very divine self. One might ask the poet of Lamentations, what is the sense of prayer at all, given the outburst, “You have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through” (3:43)? Indeed, “things fall apart,” even the possibility of prayer.

And yet, our poet holds on: “The Lord is good to those who wait for him” (3:25). But it can be a very long wait! The overconfident preacher will lead people astray here: “It’s okay. Just believe. It’s only a brief test. The Lord will come through” — maybe…unless, unless the despair of Lamentations is right, unless “you have utterly rejected us.” Not that it is the task of the preacher to produce such doubt. No, life produces doubt. The task of the preacher is to name it, to allow it its place, and to put faith where it belongs as the amazing “nevertheless” — “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” (Psalm 73:23).

Faith here will not entail believing the unbelievable out of sheer cussed individual perseverance; it will be holding on to the gift once given, despite whatever present realities call it into question. As for the poet in Lamentations, such faith will require the creedal and communal memory of what God has done, calling that work into the present through prayer and proclamation. If it takes a village to raise a child, it will certainly take a congregation to support or restore my faith — to recite it to me in the creed, to proclaim it to me in the sermon, to sing it to me in the liturgy and hymns.

Left to myself, the center will never hold. Even together, we must admit there will be times when it appears that all is lost. But then, this voice: “The Lord is good to those who wait for him….[God] does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Hold on to this for me, dear preacher. Believe it with me. Let me hear it anew.

And take me at last to the One who gave his cheeks to the smiter on my behalf, who suffered divine abandonment for my sake, who knew firsthand the terror of feeling “utterly rejected” by God and God’s people. This will not be a simple “fix” to the issues of our text. It will not raise me to the clouds beyond the troubles of the world; it will bring God into the depths to share my terror and unbelief and thus give me, in Christ, a place to stand — even when the center cannot hold.

1William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, definitive ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 184-185

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Samuel Giere

David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, a fine example of Hebrew poetry, is a particularly difficult text to preach, for this convergence of difficultly intertwined relationships lacks any reference to the LORD.

Textual Horizons

Throughout the story of the Saul and David, there are threads that weave in and out the narrative.   Two such relational threads from earlier in the story need to be highlighted before going into David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan: David’s relationship with Saul’s son Jonathan, and David’s relationship with Saul. 

Just after David slays Goliath and defeats of the Philistines (last week’s pericope1), the first of threads come into full view, when the narrator shares, “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”2 

The full character of the relationship between Jonathan, a warrior in his own right3 respected by the people,4 is not altogether clear.  Over the last thirty-five years, there has been a growing openness to and resulting debate about interpreting the relationship between David and Jonathan as a homosexual relationship.  On this a caution: It is difficult, if not impossible, to draw direct comparisons between relationships portrayed in scripture and those lived today.  The interpreter must be careful not to draw too simplistic a picture of relationship types across and between cultures today, let alone making comparisons of relationships today with those depicted in ancient texts from ancient cultures.  Returning to the narrative itself, the interpreter must also be cautious given the complex relationships that both David and Jonathan have with many others throughout their stories.

All that said, if there is a relationship depicted in scripture that provides images for talking about a loving relationship between two men, homosexual or heterosexual, this is it.  David lamenting Jonathan’s death in the pericope for today, says, “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.”5   The question of orientation, which is ambiguous and ultimately unanswerable, need not render scripture into a witness for any particular interpretation or ideology.

What is clear, rather, is that the deep, committed bond and friendship between these two figures, which leads Jonathan to make a covenant with David,6 to warn David of Saul’s desire to have him killed,7 to speak well of David to Saul in spite of his father’s wishes,8 and which leads David to sing of Jonathan’s death as if his own self had died. 

Also weaving into David’s lament in today’s pericope is his tumultuous relationship with Saul.   It is crucial at this juncture to recall the LORD’s involvement in the relationship of David and Saul:

The LORD said, “Rise and anoint [David]; for this is the one.”  Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that Day forward.  Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.  Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.9

While David does not ascend to the throne for some time,10 the shift in the spirit of the LORD11 is a liminal point in the drama that continues right through their shared story and into the lament in today’s text.  Ordained by the movement of the LORD’s spirit, Saul and David, remain adversaries.  However, David, the then-Philistine mercenary, refused to lead his men against Saul.12  Saul’s death comes upon Mount Gilboa in battle with the Philistines.  After the Philistines have killed three of Saul’s sons, Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, he recognizes that all is lost and, rather than dying at the hand of the Philistines, falls on his sword.13

David’s grief at the deaths of Saul and Jonathan14 is acute.  From this flows his lament, a beautifully constructed example of Hebrew poetry that never mentions God.  Woven together here are these two relational threads, David’s relationships with both Saul and Jonathan, drastically different thought they were.  Of note is the observation of William Holladay, David “chose to eulogize the two men side by side…, to honor the king by naming him one more time than he named Jonathan, and to express his personal affection for Jonathan by direct address…”15  David’s grief-stricken work of art draws together his predecessor on the throne and his deepest friend, father and son at odds over the LORD’s favor upon the throne of Israel.16 

Preaching Horizons

It should be no surprise that David, the psalmist, is able to offer up such a poignant lament, a work of art.  It should be no surprise that David is able to express such deep feelings about Jonathan.  What is surprising is that he is able to do so about Saul, the foe who repeatedly desired him dead.  Perhaps the questions of Ambrose of Milan will help to ponder the place of David’s lament in the context of this larger narrative.

“What mother could weep thus for her only son as he wept here for his enemy?  Who could follow his benefactor with such praise as that with which he followed the man who plotted against his life?”17

11 Samuel 17: [1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49 – 4th Sunday after Pentecost (24 June 2012)
21 Samuel 18:1
31 Samuel 13:3
41 Samuel 14:45
52 Samuel 1:26.  For further reading on the interpretation that the relationship of David and Jonathan as homosexual relationship, cf. Yaron Peleg, “Love at First Sight? David, Jonathan, and the Biblical Politics of Gender,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30 (2005): 171-189; and on the interpretation that their relationship is a “deep friendship,” cf. Markus Zehnder, “Observations on the Relationship between David and Jonathan and the Debate on Homosexuality,” Westminster Theological Journal69 (2007): 127-174. 
6 It is not entirely clear how to understand “covenant” here.  It is likely not an image of the suzerainty treaty between the LORD and Israel, but more in line with a pact or agreement between two equal parties. 
71 Samuel 19:2
81 Samuel 19:4-6
91 Samuel 16:12b-14
102 Samuel 5:3
111 Samuel 16:12b-14
121 Samuel 30:23
13Saul’s suicide is point in scripture where suicide is not condemned. 
14Evidently, the other two sons of Saul who were slain alongside Jonathan (1 Samuel 31:2) were not lamentable. 
15William L. Holladay, “Form and Word-Play in David’s Lament over Saul and Jonathan,” Vetus testamentum 20 (1970) 188.
16On the distant but visible horizon of this text are the extreme measures taken by David (2 Samuel 21) during the three-year famine.  With the exception of Jonathan’s son, David executes by the hand of the Gibeonites Saul’s remaining progeny. Hearing that Saul’s concubine, Rizpah, had protected the bodies from the birds for some time, David had the bodies of those whom he had had executed together with the bones of Saul and Jonathan buried properly in the land of Benjamin.  As if repairing a rupture by performing this burial (and executing the remnants of Saul’s house?), God begins again to heed “supplications for the land” (2 Samuel 21:14b). 
17Ambrose, “On the Duties of the Clergy,” 3.9 – NPNF2 10.77.


Commentary on Psalm 30

Carolyn J. Sharp

Psalm 30 frames the struggles of the life of faith within a glorious edifice: the Jerusalem Temple, a powerful cultural icon that “narrates” the faith of the believing community, the enduring presence of God, and the inviolability of God’s promises to Israel.

The psalm is ascribed to David, but it is also designated for the dedication of the Temple. Since the dedication of the first Temple took place under Solomon (1 Kings 8:63), in view here must be either the dedication of the second Temple in 515 B.C.E. (Ezra 6:16) or its rededication in the Maccabean era (1 Maccabees 4).

The complexity of the superscription invites us to hear the psalm as a prophetic reflection on the fortunes of God’s people from the early monarchy through the Persian period or even later. “Temple” becomes a richly layered symbol for the participation of the faithful in worship through the centuries. In the sweeping historical perspective constructed by the superscription, the Temple with its liturgical rhythms becomes the spiritual edifice constructed by those who sing God’s praises in every generation.

The psalmist begins with a shout of praise: God has drawn him up, healed him, and restored his life! The psalmist names his experience of healing using allusions to mythic depths, hinting at the spiritual deeps from which God has drawn him up (verse 1) and referring explicitly to Sheol and the Pit (verse 3), tropes for the spiritually inert arena of dusty darkness that awaits the dead. A chiastic structure with healing at its center (verse 2) renders transparent the veil between this life, with its pragmatic challenges of sickness and enmity, and the underworld that exists outside of human time. The mythic places of chaos and meaninglessness press on every side, threatening not only those who have already expired but those who seek to flourish in the present moment.

The psalmist breaks off his narrative to exhort the gathered community to praise the LORD (verse 4). Implicitly, we are invited to join the ranks of God’s seasoned “faithful ones.” The basis for praise? Experiences of divine punishment are only fleeting, whereas God’s favor lasts “for a lifetime.” The Hebrew phrasing here may be read in a theologically profound way: “a moment” is contrasted not with “length of days” or “all the days of my life” or another such commonplace expression of time, but with life itself (chayyim; compare Psalm 36:9 and 42:2.1  Transient pain is answered by God’s eternal grace.

The following lines feint toward the continued establishment of the one who praises God for divine favor: “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain.” But the confidence of the psalmist is decimated by two startling words in the Hebrew: histarta paneka, “You hid your face.” All his strong talk is unraveled in a moment of abandonment! We are undone as well, for we trusted this narratorial voice.

The psalmist had not been boasting in any untoward way; he had rightly credited God’s “favor” as the means by which he had been caused to prosper. Surprised by his experience of abandonment, we find ourselves standing with the psalmist in that ragged liminal moment in which praise shades over into mourning. With his remembrance of having been left by God, the psalmist not only subverts false confidence. He renders poignant — and fragile — the shouts of praise that still echo in the sanctuary.

We are compelled to face the terrifying absence of God in the very midst of our singing. The psalmist challenges God with a barrage of rhetorical questions and impassioned pleas (verses 9-10). But this, too, is faith, for the psalmist’s anguished “Hear, O LORD!” (shema Adonai) evokes the majestic Shema Yisrael that perpetually reestablishes the covenant relationship between God and people (Deuteronomy 6:4).

We could try to dismiss the psalmist’s cries as irrelevant now, in the present moment of healing. But because of the brilliant way in which the psalm weaves together past and present, these sharp challenges to God remain forceful. Their traces cannot be silenced even in a sanctuary resounding with praise. The psalm may move gracefully into joy once again (verses 11-12), but we are left with trauma as an insistent memory just beneath the surface of our recovery.

Psalm 30 inscribes holy space in two temporal dimensions. One dimension is the contested space of historical time lived in God’s presence. We are drawn into the drama of the life of the believer with its doubts and joys, its anger and trust, its barely-suppressed fear of enemies. But another temporal dimension unfolds as well: the sacred space of eternity, in which God’s favor continually heals believers and clothes them with joy. Mourning turns to dancing; sackcloth is traded for a garment of rejoicing. These are liturgical terms: we are led to perceive the “Temple,” as both literal and spiritual edifice, holding together these two dimensions of faithful living.

It is not the case that we struggle and then are healed, once and for all. That might suggest that God’s redemption is a commodity that believers could seek to manipulate liturgically. Rather, we seek God through the changeable rhythms of joyous praising and bitter wrestling. Faith is lived in a dance of mourning and rejoicing — a dance that is by turns brutal and lyrical, as the turbulent Hebrew meter of this poem might suggest. Belief means alternately challenging and submitting to One whose power to save cannot be bounded by our expectations.

In many Christian traditions, Psalm 30 is read at the Easter Vigil in all three lectionary years. The suggestion is an ancient one that this psalm speaks of God’s mercy overcoming death itself. Augustine interpreted the psalm as singing “the joy of the resurrection” (see his Exposition on the Psalms at Psalm XXX). But this psalm resists any sort of triumphalist plot-line. God is not always experienced as loving and present.

And so we preach the good news of God’s mercy while honoring the reality of the spiritual bleakness that even seasoned believers can experience. We acclaim God in times of joy and desolation alike, for we testify to an incarnate Lord who struggled with temptation in the desert and cried out his despair on the Cross. Psalm 30 is urgently necessary for preachers because it invites us into an honest ministry of accompaniment. We can proclaim God’s redemption in Christ persuasively only while walking with our beloved community through its dark and agonistic experiences of the Cross.

1Due to variant numbering in the Hebrew text, the corresponding verses in Hebrew are Psalm 36:10 and 42:3.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Carla Works

Our Pauline reading for this week is often relegated to sermons during stewardship campaigns.

While this text certainly forces us to think about what we do with our resources and, therefore, should inform our stewardship drives, Paul’s passion in this text relates first of all to the gospel.

How believers use their resources — time, money, talents, and attention — is a reflection of what they believe about God and God’s actions in the world.  Furthermore, how those resources are used preaches a message to others.  Paul wants the Corinthians’ actions to be a reflection of the gospel in which they believe.

The Collection

This passage fits in a larger section of 2 Corinthians (8:1-9:15) that is chiefly concerned with Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church.  In Galatians 2:10, Paul indicates that concern for the poor has been a part of his ministry from the beginning.  According to Romans 15, Paul views the collection as a service to the poor among the saints in the Jerusalem church (Romans 15:25-26).

Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church is a massive undertaking.  Paul only mentions the contribution of the Macedonian churches in our present passage (2 Corinthians 8:1 and 9:2, 4).  His previous letter indicates that he intended the churches of Galatia to participate as well (1 Corinthians 16:1).

The instructions in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 imply that the church has raised questions about how to collect their contribution.  Paul’s directions in that letter suggest that the Corinthians are eager to participate.  The apostle appeals to this zeal in 2 Corinthians 8:10-11 and encourages them to finish what they started a year ago.  Ultimately, it seems that the Corinthians made some contribution because Paul acknowledges in Romans 15:25-26 that he will deliver to Jerusalem the collection from Macedonia and Achaia (where Corinth is located).

Before Paul reminds the Corinthians of their commitment to the collection, he boasts that the Macedonian churches have given generously (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).  In fact, Paul uses language that characterizes their action in a superlative fashion.  The Macedonian believers have undergone a severe test of affliction, yet their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity (8:2).

According to Paul, these saints, though suffering themselves, begged to give to this collection for the poor.  If the Macedonians, who have suffered terrible affliction, have given so great a gift, then the Corinthians can surely give as generously.

In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul gets more mileage out of the Macedonian success story by shaming the Corinthian church into acting.  Perhaps the apostle is anticipating that some in the Corinthian church might now be opposed to contributing to this collection.  After all, the relationship between Paul and this community has recently shown signs of strain (2 Corinthians 2:2-4; 7:1-13).  Paul worries that the Corinthians will be humiliated, if some from the Macedonian church come to Corinth with Paul, and the collection is not ready.  He reminds the church again that they have promised to participate and that the collection should be a willing gift (2 Corinthians 9:5). 

Before he resorts to shaming them directly, he reminds the believers that their actions to support the Jerusalem poor demonstrate the earnestness of their faith (2 Corinthians 8:8).  Paul reframes the whole collection as the gospel enacted.   In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul retells the good news through the lens of generosity.  Christ gave up extraordinary riches so that others might receive the abundant wealth of God’s grace.

Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that Paul thought of the collection as more than an act that remembered the poor.  There were surely poor people in the churches of Macedonia, Galatia, and Achaia.  Though Paul seems devoted to remembering the poor — especially those in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10), this collection is more than an offering. 

In Romans 15, Paul gives further rationale for why he would encourage all the Gentile believers to help the Jerusalem church.  According to Romans 15:27, Paul believes that the Gentile saints are in debt to the Jews: “for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.” 

According to Paul, it is through Israel, and particularly through the majority of Israel’s trespass of not recognizing God’s work through Jesus, that salvation has come to the Gentiles (Romans 11:7-12).  The Gentiles are, therefore, indebted to Israel.  The collection connects these two communities and becomes an outward manifestation of Paul’s eschatological vision that Jew and Gentile will praise God together with one voice (Romans 15:1-13).

These Gentile churches are collecting money for believers in Jerusalem whom they have likely never met.  Furthermore, based on the frustration Paul expresses in Galatians 2 over the exclusive dining practices of some of the Jerusalem leaders, it is not clear how well these Gentiles would have been welcomed by the Jerusalem saints.  Yet, this offering binds the Jerusalem community to the Gentile believers who are now serving as benefactors.  To use Paul’s language, this collection shows the believers’ indebtedness to one another and ultimately to the God who is working among them.

Paul is clear that he is not calling the Corinthians to give to the point that it hurts.  They share in responsibility to care for their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, just as their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem share in caring for them (8:14).  It is hard to establish any form of “equality” (8:14) if one party has nothing because it has given up everything.

Instead, the Corinthians are the ones who have means.  The Corinthians are urged to give generously with the knowledge that God has already provided abundantly for them for this very purpose: “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (9:8).

Preaching this Text during Pentecost

Preaching this text during Pentecost should bring an awareness that the Spirit is indeed loose in the church.  In Paul’s world, God’s Spirit is at work among predominantly Gentile communities to minister to Jewish believers.  In an ironic twist, people who might not have been welcomed at the dinner table (according to Galatians 2:11-14) are the very ones who are providing the resources for the food.

If God can overcome boundaries such as this in Paul’s day, surely the Spirit can act in new and startling ways in our churches today.  How will the Spirit ask us to make use of our time, our talents, and our resources to display the gospel in our world?