Tuesday, July 18, 2017

How Much Is Enough? (V)

“For if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack – that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” 2 Corinthians 8:12 – 15.

Equality in community in Christ is a central thread of 2 Corinthians Chapters 8 and 9. We may dilute it, we may skip over it, and we will tend to rationalize it away – however, it is the nature of Christ to care for others, and it is the nature of a body to care for itself, for its members. When we close our hearts and resources to our brothers and sisters we close our hearts and resources to Jesus Christ. As the Apostle John asks, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). This is a question that churches should be asking; it is a question that most of us should be asking (I write “most” for I have known some unusual people who have lived sacrificial lives, embodying 1 John 3:16). When we do not meet the needs of our brothers and sisters in distress we are denying the nature of Christ and we are denying that we are His body. What are we saying to the cosmos, to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies”? What are we saying to our generation? What is our witness?

Paul makes it clear that no one should be forced to think and act in accordance with this teaching, “Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). There should be no pressure. This does not mean that there should be no challenge – for Paul has challenged the Corinthians with the example of the Macedonians, and he has challenged them with Israel in the Wilderness. It is a fine line – it is the nature of Christ to care for others, it is our calling to care for our brothers and sisters, now you need to decide how to live.

This idea of careful tension between compulsion and obedience is, I think, unique to the issue of money in the New Testament. Caring for our brothers and sisters is clearly woven into the Gospel, “…they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all…” (9:13). So why doesn’t Paul say, as he would in other areas of life, “Just do it”?

I think the answer lies, at least in part, in Paul’s general approach to the subject of money, he doesn’t want to do anything that might give others a reason to accuse him of being focused on money, of questioning his motives. Another likely component is that God really does love a cheerful giver, and since money is closely tied to the heart (for many of us) Paul doesn’t want someone to fall into hypocrisy by just going along with the program, nor does he want someone to harden his heart by resentfully giving what he does not freely want to give. There is a reason the Bible talks so much about money and possessions, they are dear to our hearts – alas, we cannot serve both God and money and therefore (hopefully!) we have a tension.

On the other hand, Paul is challenging the collective church in Corinth and we are good stewards of the Gospel if we challenge congregations, and if congregations challenge themselves. Note that this is about giving to others, not about lining the coffers of our own congregations. Just as individuals can justify not giving by seeking their own financial security, so can congregations and other ministry organizations. Considering the size of some endowments one would think that the God of today is not the God of tomorrow – He may have provided in the past but we aren’t sure about Him providing for the future. How much is enough before we sacrificially give to others? Why it is “just a little bit more!”

If context should rule our interpretation of the text, then the idea of God loving a cheerful giver ought to be taught in the context of giving to others in need and not in the context of sustaining our own organizational apparatus. It ought to include the context that God is our provider and that we are on pilgrimage together and that there should be equality in community. Consider that the Corinthians were to be participating in “fully supplying the needs of the saints” (9:12) – we aren’t talking about sending a few bags of dried beans.

2 Corinthians Chapters 8 and 9 is an indictment of the church as most of us know it, and I must also admit my own guilt. The question is, will we have the courage to do anything about it?

Do we consider these two chapters the Word of God? If so, will we respond in obedience?

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