2 Corinthians 8.1-15
The apostle Paul is primarily known as an evangelist, a teacher and a theologian. His energetic preaching of the gospel and his deep concern to establish and build up Christian congregations took him repeatedly on preaching and teaching tours across the dangerous seas and terrain of the Eastern Mediterranean until his final imprisonment in the capital city of the great Roman Empire.
What is less commonly recognised about Paul is his active commitment to the material well-being of the congregations he was associated with. Yet, one of the great priorities in the latter part of his ministry was to organise a financial collection among some of the churches he was associated with on behalf of the poverty-stricken Christians in Jerusalem. He saw this as an important part of his ‘service to the saints’ (2 Corinthians 8.4, 9.1). His primary motive, as he tells the Christians in Corinth, is that there might be ‘equality’ within the Christian family.
The term ‘equality’ is the NIV translation of the Greek word isotes. The ESB translates the same word as ‘fairness’, which probably conveys the meaning more accurately. Paul was not arguing in this passage for a strict equalising out of the resources available to Christians across region, but rather that no-one would go without, that all would share in some measure in the bounty of God. Since the Christians in Jerusalem were suffering from severe shortage, probably as a result of famine, Christians elsewhere were called upon to make up their lack, even though for some it meant giving out of their already very limited purse (see 2 Corinthians 8.2).
In this passage Paul draws on the example of the provision that God made for the people of Israel when they passed through the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt. In the wilderness, God miraculously provided manna (and quails) as food. And there was always enough for everyone so that even those who were only able to gather a little had sufficient. When they entered the Promised Land the manna stopped but the land, which ‘flowed with milk and honey’, provided sufficient for everyone. This meant that even the poor were provided for (see, for example, Psalm 68.10).
Paul takes this principle, that within the people of God everyone should have access to the bounty of God, and applies it to the newly planted Jewish and Gentile churches of Palestine and Greece. But rather than some miraculous provision from heaven, the lack experienced by the Jerusalem church could be made up by the generosity of the Christians in Macedonia and Achaia.
The other motives that Paul gives for this giving are instructive. Writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul says that the gift is a kind of thank offering from the Gentile church to the Jewish church from whom they originally received the gospel (Romans 15.25-27). He also saw it as a demonstration of love, both for God and for fellow believers (2 Corinthians 8.8). Finally he saw it as an act of witness, reflecting the example of Christ who ‘though he was rich yet for your sakes became poor’ (2 Corinthians 8.9).
We live at a time when access to the world’s resources show huge disparities between rich and poor. It is estimated that almost half the world’s population live on less than $2.50 a day, barely sufficient to provide the basic necessities. One consequence is that over a quarter of the children living in developing countries is underweight or stunted. In the meantime, many people living in affluent countries spend large sums on unnecessary luxuries. For example, in 1998 Europeans spent $11 billion on ice cream alone.
For Christians thinking about this state of affairs, the energy that Paul put into organising his collection for the Christians in Jerusalem can be an inspiration. So too can his motives. Giving as an act of thanksgiving, love and witness is very different from giving out of compulsion or guilt. It ensures our giving is not grudging but joyful not tight-fisted but generous, not legalistic but free.
Above all, giving is an act of grace that springs from the recognition that God has given us the bounty of the world’s resources, not to waste or hoard for ourselves but to steward and to share,.
Father God, you have given us so much. Help us share what we have with others. Help us to do so gladly, generously, sacrificially, knowing that we have the supreme example of your Son who, though he was rich became poor that we might become rich in him.