Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

As soon as they say, “It’s not about the money!” you know the money matters.

June 28, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

As soon as they say, “It’s not about the money!” you know the money matters.

And surely as the summer media will continue to obsess on the economy, the Pauline lesson for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost will talk candidly in church about the money. People may squirm in discomfort from the heat or the topic, and preachers may skip the subject. Or worse, they may indulge their personal views on economic policy.

When the experts discuss “Supply Side” or “Keynesian Macroeconomics,” or the talking heads on CNN criticize “trickle down” or “voodoo economics,” only a tiny number of preachers might know enough to comment without simply irritating their people.

Even if a small cadre of such expertise could be found among the clergy, a sermon on “monetary theory” would almost certainly be as inane as when the rationalists of earlier centuries reduced the 23rd Psalm to instructions in sheep herding.

Yes, “Apostolic Economics” are about the money. However, they do not authorize naïve or self-righteous attacks on bankers, brokers, and economic stimulus policies. Preaching about money is challenging both because people have strong, often informed, economic views, and most people know they are about to be asked for contributions yet one more time.

In a global economy where people’s fears and hopes rise and fall with the market, “Working Preachers” can help liberate their congregations to live in the abundant freedom of the Gospel by teaching a lesson in “Apostolic Economics.” The Apostle Paul does not develop an economic theory. Rather, he invites people to understand the proper meaning and power of their money in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Paul’s second letter “to the church of God that is in Corinth” (1:1) is historically fascinating and theologically powerful for many reasons. Our lesson from chapter 8 is filled with the concepts of the Greco-Roman oeconomia, the “economy” of meaning and money of the dominant culture. This is often called the “honor-shame” culture where those in power were supremely confident of divine approval, as evident in their wealth.

Frederick W. Danker’s commentary on 2 Corinthians1  astutely demonstrates how Paul used and transformed the philanthropic rhetoric of the Hellenistic Benefactor from an abundance of privilege to an evangelical generosity of divine mercy. Yes, it still is about the money, but watch how Apostolic Economics put wealth in a new light.

The last verse of our text (8:15) shows Paul himself working from scripture. God’s distribution of the manna in the wilderness set the standard in Israel that “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Apostolic Economics are grounded in scriptural convictions about wealth: “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). Humans are empowered as managers of the abundance of God’s earth. Whether they gain wealth by skill or stealth, their stewardship has accountability. In verses 12-14, therefore, Paul gives scriptural meaning to parlance of the Hellenistic economy. What makes a gift “acceptable” (euprosdektos) and “fair” (isotes) is not merely a judgment by prevailing standards of benefaction. But how are these acts valued in the economy of God’s generosity?

Modern fiscal, legal, and tax economies are deeply protective of property rights. “Possession is nine points of the law!” We are now learning how powerful for good and ill these concepts are to the earth and its peoples. Financial advisors teach us to focus on wealth accumulation, and estate planning brings wisdom on inter-generational transfers.

Paul, however, redirects the entitlements of “rights” to the wisdom of stewarding God’s abundance. His lesson is for Christian disciples (learners) of Jesus’ reign, but even people who don’t believe in God can understand the mortal limits of ownership rights. A candid observer once stated, “Finally we are all 100% donors!”

Reading the first verses of our passage in the light of Paul’s scriptural convictions, we begin to grasp how profoundly Apostolic Economics transforms the world of money.

But before entering into the apostle’s joy, remember that in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul hit hard against the “prosperity gospel” of his opponents, the “super-apostles” or “false apostles” (11:5-15). Late-night media evangelists and prosperity preachers in Africa and Latin America still pull out verse 9 for the soul of their messages: “For your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (8:9).

Christian “get rich quick” schemes are the gospel of false apostles. They continue to dwell on our self-interest, turning God into our financial guarantor, and luring us into the illusion that our benevolence will begin when we have made it big in the market.

Human susceptibility to greed appears to be boundless as the wealthy get caught in Ponzi investment scams, and the poor are enticed to buy lottery tickets. The misery that follows those who made quick wealth from gambling is almost statistically certain. Preachers who bleed others financially in Jesus’ name may be the lowest scum of all.

This passage, however, is not a scold, but a joyful vision of God’s abundant love and an invitation into our freedom to be generous.

The logic tracks closely with the magnificent Christ hymn Paul recites in Philippians: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6-7). The Gospel of Apostolic Economics is still about “our Lord Jesus Christ:” “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9). This is the theology of the cross in economic language, leading not to human privilege to possess our wealth, but to Christian freedom to put the well-being of the neighbor ahead of our own interests.

The work of the preacher is to invite people into God’s generosity, balancing the accounts of the needs of others against the column of their own abundance (see verse 13).

On the spreadsheets of Apostolic Economics, “the gift is acceptable” (euprosdektos) as those who have more are able to give more. No one is in a lofty position as a big donor, certainly not compared with the generosity of Christ. But everyone is encouraged to join in the divine drama of giving.

Even “excellence” is now measured on God’s standard, or by the love the apostle has given to them, not by their own performance: “Now as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you — so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking” (2 Corinthians 8:7).

It’s about God’s love, and the money is a powerful way to get in on the action.

1Frederick W. Danker, II Corinthians: Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1989).