Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
While the beautiful sequence of stories in Mark 5:21-43 constitutes the Gospel for today, this reading from 2 Corinthians on the faithful use of money is very pertinent and timely for North Americans. Even if you choose not to preach on it, it would make a powerful teaching for a church board, adult formation class, or committee charged with reflecting on social and economic justice.
English translations obscure an important theme of 2 Corinthians that is prominent in today’s reading: the word grace (Greek, charis). It is translated variously in 2 Corinthians as favor, privilege, generous undertaking, generous act, and blessing. Yet none of these words comes close to conveying the heart of grace, which is the life-giving power of God. In Paul’s view, the steady act of believing in Christ (Greek pistis) opens up within the believer a channel for the grace of God to enter the world, bringing life to people who have been under the power of death. Grace is the power that is saving and reconciling the world, a power with its origins in God, its channel through communities of believers, and its goal in every place where brokenness, suffering, and destruction reign.
A second Greek word, also obscured in translation, helps in visualizing the flow of grace: the word perisseuein, which the NRSV translates as “to excel,” but which means literally to abound or to overflow. The Greek term expresses so aptly the way in which God’s power for life is being poured into and through the churches not only spiritually but also quite materially in how they manage and channel all their assets, such as money, relationships, abilities, knowledge—all flowing graciously beyond them through giving, love, mutual service, and witness.
A complex work of art
The passage at hand is introduced earlier, in 2 Corinthians 8:1-2: “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” This is a case in which you might want to extend the reading, in order to establish the context for 8:7-15.
The Greek word for joy, above, is related to charis (grace); it is chará.
Paul’s rhetoric in this passage is like a carefully crafted painting, in which he builds up layers of related colors (grace, joy, thanks) as well as contrasting hues (poor, poverty, affliction) to try to convey what is essentially a mystery: the abundant grace of God flowing through the very vulnerability, marginality, and suffering of believers.
Peter Oakes1 has spoken of the economic basis for the Philippians’ suffering (Philippi was located in the region of Macedonia), and such suffering is the basis for the comparison with the Corinthians made in verse 8 and the reason for stressing the poverty of Christ in verse 9.
The grace of Christ
The theological weight of the passage falls in verse 9, with the vivid portrayal of Christ’s poverty, “though he was rich.” Paul’s theological assertion hinges on the word grace: “For you know the grace (NRSV, “generous act”) of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The center of Paul’s Christology is the crucifixion and resurrection, and I assume that Jesus’s execution on the cross is what he is referring to here in the contrast between poverty and riches (see also Philippians 2:5-8). The cross represents a total emptying out of the “riches” of Jesus’s position as God’s beloved.
Power has flowed out from the cross for the salvation of the Gentiles, grace moving from Jesus’ self-emptying into a world trapped in destructive patterns. Verse 9 follows the pattern of Paul’s theological ethics, that the grace of God flows when those with power, status, or authority are willing to empty themselves, willing to descend, in order to raise others up. For Paul, God’s economy is not zero-sum. In the economy of God, the pattern of self-offering results in the multiplication of grace for everyone involved.
Such a faithful calculation is counter-cultural.
The Macedonians understand the economy of grace. Paul says that they pleaded with him for the “grace of partnering in this ministry to the saints” (2 Corinthians 8:3-4, author’s translation). Despite their poverty, the Macedonian churches have been generous precisely from the origin of their suffering, their financial distress: they have been financially generous, giving to the offering that Paul is gathering for the poor in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10).
Bringing grace to fulfillment
Paul’s original financial promise to the “pillar” apostles in Jerusalem (James, Cephas, and John), was conceived as an outward sign of the spiritual kinship that connected the Gentile churches as a whole with the original Jewish community of Jesus-followers. Thus, the monetary gift being gathered among the Corinthians is not separate from that of the Macedonians and others. The money added to Paul’s collection by the Corinthians completes a movement of grace among the Gentile churches as they empty their pockets; and then grace proceeds in its other mode (abounding, overflowing, filling) as Paul carries the gift to Jerusalem to be poured out among the needy there. The dynamic power of grace is shared equally and tangibly among the far-flung Gentile churches and the poor in Jerusalem, a kinship in Christ both initiated and sealed by grace.
Grace in our context
Paul’s insistence that the flow of God’s grace can be observed in the movement of money from one community to another offers a radical challenge to conventional views of “charity.” For Paul, money is a powerful and relatively simple way for the reconciling power of God to reach effectively into human lives, drawing givers and receivers alike into right relationship with God and with one another. Verses 13-14 anticipates the Corinthians’ objections and their culturally-derived sense of what is fair by accounting not only for money but for the invisible virtues that the Macedonians “abound” in that overflow for the benefit of the whole body of Christ, including the Corinthians.
Paul’s teaching on the economy of grace could play a significant role in discerning faithful responses to such large-scale current issues as reparations for slavery, fair systems of taxation, the establishment of a realistic minimum wage, and the impact of residential zoning on the education and future income of children in the U.S.
- Peter Oakes, Philippians: From People to Letter, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 110 (Cambridge Cambridge University, 2001); and Peter Oakes, “The Economic Situation of the Philippian Christians,” in The People Beside Paul: The Philippian Assembly and History From Below, ed. Joseph A. Marchal. Early Christianity and Its Literature 17 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015).