Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

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

July 1, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

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?