2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; 2 Corinthians 8: 1-15; Mark 5: 21-43
I have been reading more about the life of one of my favourite people, an Anglican clergyman and geologist, the Reverend W.B. Clarke. He arrived in Sydney in 1841 and served in his parish of St Leonards North Sydney and regularly in a country circuit doing baptisms, funerals and marriages. He fitted in geological exploration as he went. He was the first discoverer of gold (some years ahead of Hargraves) and of coal which were to bring wealth to the colonies. He also wrote hymns and a regular column in the Sydney Morning Herald about the wonders of science. In spite of his many interests and concerns, a recurring theme in his letters, including those to and from his bishop, was money. The need to increase collections so the church could expand its role in providing schools and church buildings and caring for the poor in the colony, as well as supporting its clergyman and his horse.
So Paul’s exhortation to the new church in Corinth about giving to support the poor sounded like a familiar theme, but I found Paul gave me a fresh perspective on giving in the church.
Before Paul, Jesus, too frequently spoke about money and the right and wrong use of it.
He contrasted two ways of giving: the way of a rich Pharisee, who had fanfares sounding and threw lots of money into the temple coffer, and the way of a poor widow, who quietly gave only two small coins. But hers was sacrificial giving, it was all she had, and she was giving it to God who she loved. Jesus commended her giving as an example to his disciples.
Just after Easter, in our readings from Acts, we heard about the generosity that characterized the early Christian church in Jerusalem. Members of that community sold what they had and laid it at the feet of the apostles to distribute it. It meant that no-one went without. Paul’s traveling companion Barnabas sold a field that he owned to give the proceeds to the community. In that early church community there was sacrificial giving, an overflowing of generosity and love for the Lord and for one another.
In today’s reading Paul is speaking to the members of the new church he has founded in Corinth. Corinth was a large, wealthy port city, near the capital of modern day Greece, Athens.
In Corinth, many people worshipped pagan gods, including those gods still popular today, wealth and worldly success. Paul started by telling the Corinthian church community about his experience with the Macedonians, who lived in a poorer region in the north of Greece. We know Paul hadn’t ever planned to visit Macedonia, but in a dream he saw a Macedonian man beckoning him and begging him to come. Knowing that God was leading him, Paul went there. And he reported that the people he met there were very receptive to the gospel. A new church was founded and was thriving.
In their joy that God had included them in his church and offered them salvation, they collected a great deal of money for Paul to take back to the poor of Jerusalem. Paul was obviously thrilled with their generosity.
Why was it so important to Paul to take a collection from the new Gentile churches in Macedonia and Corinth back to Jerusalem?
At the earlier council of Jerusalem, Paul had received permission from the apostles James and Peter, to offer the gospel to the Gentiles, and offer them full membership in the church. In his turn, Paul offered to make a collection from the new Gentile churches and to bring back to Jerusalem, to help the mother church at the centre of the faith to give to its poor.
This wasn’t just a deal done by Paul to get their permission, it wasn’t even a fee or bribe to get the go ahead from head office. The Macedonians really wanted to show their gratitude and to take their place as full members of the church. And Paul was acting on a much bigger idea.
In the Hebrew scriptures, a recurring theme was God’s wish that the whole of the Gentile world would come to God through Zion, through his people Israel. For Paul this directive from God took the form of his own mission to bring the Gentiles of the world to God, to bring them into the fold of God’s people Israel. A tangible outworking of this mission was in this collection of money. It represented the sacrificial giving from the Gentiles, moved by gratitude for the grace of the God they had received through Paul’s teaching. And Paul would take this collection back to Jerusalem, God’s holy city, and offer it to the mother church there. So through their offerings, the Gentiles were joining in the mission of the mother church in Jerusalem, helping to support the poor there. The Gentiles were tangibly coming into the fold, joining in mission with God’s people Israel.
In fact, it seems that Paul was not as successful in encouraging the well-to-do Corinthians to give as he was with the Macedonians. And as far as we know no members of the Corinthian church joined his team of missionaries nor did any accompany him back to Jerusalem with the collection. In contrast, some of Paul’s converts from Macedonia, from its capital Thessalonika, joined his mission, travelling with Paul as his disciples. Worldly riches often don’t seem to translate into generosity.
But Paul’s words in Corinth give us a good insight into how he viewed giving in the church, and I think they are important to us too.
So why did Jesus and Paul exhort us to give, generously and even sacrificially, more than is comfortable, to the church?
Yes, the poor of Jerusalem certainly needed the money, yet the emphasis of Jesus and of Paul is on the impact of the giving on the giver, rather than the receiver.
The poor widow was blessed through her sacrificial offering; the showy rich Pharisee already had his reward in the admiration of his friends. That wasn’t what God wanted.
So why give? What should motivate us to give to God?
Not to impress others (like the Pharisee) or to impress God with how generous we are.
Not to buy our way to forgiveness or heaven. That went out 500 years ago when Martin Luther slammed the practice of the church in granting forgiveness of sins for money.
Not to do a deal, not even fulfilling a moral obligation as payback for God’s gifts.
Paul told the Corinthians he wasn’t commanding them to give. Giving because we are commanded to give is not what God wants either.
No, our giving is to be the free and logical and obvious response to the generous love and overflowing abundance of grace and blessings that God has given us. Paul reminds his listeners that Jesus was rich, but became poor for our sakes. In love, he gave everything he had, and finally gave his life for us.
Like the early apostles, like Barnabas, when we really realize and accept the abundant gifts of God, we can’t help but want to pass on the blessings. And that giving changes us. It’s a tangible way of joining in God’s love for the world, becoming part of his grace flowing on to others.
It’s a way of counting us in with God in God’s mission. Becoming companions and fellow givers with Christ. That’s how the Macedonians saw it too.
Generous giving is an essential part of living a Christ shaped life, living the way of love and generosity that Christ modeled for us.
How much to give?
Paul talks about a fair balance: a fair balance between the present abundance of the Corinthians and the need of others, so that ‘the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’ And he points out that the roles could even become reversed in the future. Generous Corinthians might be on the receiving end of generosity one day!
Sharing resources strengthened the infant church established by the apostles in two ways: practically, ensuring everyone had enough to eat and somewhere to live, and in demonstrating the abundant love and compassion in that little community of saints. This behaviour was so unusual, so countercultural, that it was noticed by outsiders and became one way the world identified Christians as Christians.