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Generosity in the midst of poverty (August 31, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 

We have noted in previous lessons that the apostle Paul and many members of the church he established in Corinth were not on the best of terms. Evidently there were a significant number of Corinthian Christians who were suspicious of Paul’s motives and unimpressed by his claims to be an apostle. Some church members had shifted their loyalty to other leaders who were very critical of Paul. Paul refers to them as “false apostles” (11:13). Paul expends considerable effort to defend himself by emphasizing his call to be an apostle, by describing his deep love for the Corinthian congregation and by cataloging his unstinting efforts on their behalf. He even changed his travel plans in the hope of avoiding “another painful visit” (2:1). He hopes that his efforts at reconciliation in this artfully written epistle and a visit to Corinth by his colleague Titus might improve his standing in the eyes of the congregation.

2 Corinthians 8:1-6 — Unparalleled commitment in Macedonia 

Undeterred by the tension between himself and some members of the congregation, Paul makes a bold move. He reminds the Corinthians that they had begun to take up a collection for their impoverished fellow Christians in Jerusalem, most of whom were probably Jewish Christians. Earlier Paul had agreed at the Jerusalem conference to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). Now, buoyed by the good report Titus had brought after visiting Corinth (7:6-7), Paul decides to challenge the Corinthians to complete that project.

He begins by pointing out that the congregations in Macedonia, including Thessalonica and Philippi, had completed their collection. Despite their difficult circumstances — severe persecution and poverty — they had “overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (8:2). Some scholars question the translation “generosity” for a Greek word that typically means “sincere devotion” or “simple goodness.” Paul’s point is that the Macedonian churches spontaneously supported him and his plan to collect money for Christians in Jerusalem. Furthermore, they followed through on their commitment by completing their fund-raising efforts. Certainly the relatively well-off Christians in Corinth could be even more generous than the Christians in Macedonia, Paul suggests. Titus served as Paul’s agent in the coordination of this fund-raising effort.

2 Corinthians 8:7-11 — Jesus’ voluntary poverty 

Having challenged the Corinthians to match the commitment of the churches in Macedonia, Paul expresses his confidence in their ability to do so. In Paul’s view, the Corinthians are rich in faith, in oratorical ability, in knowledge and in their love for Paul and his colleagues (I am following a well-attested Greek reading not accepted by the NRSV). So he puts the Corinthians to the test by asking them to demonstrate the genuineness of their commitment in comparison to the commitment of the Macedonian churches.

Then Paul raises the bar a little higher by appealing to the example of Jesus. In words that bring Philippians 2:6-8 to mind, Paul emphasizes the theological truth that Jesus became poor in order to make believers spiritually rich. So collecting money for the poor in Jerusalem is not simply an act of charity or “giving back” to the mother church, as virtuous as those motivations may be. Rather it is a Christ-like act of obedience rooted in God’s gracious act in sending Jesus to die for the salvation of the world.

2 Corinthians 8:12-15 — Give your fair share 

Paul surely understood that the Corinthians could not give what they did not have. As long as they had a genuine desire to give their support, Paul was confident an appropriate gift would be forthcoming. If everyone would make a commitment based on their resources, the Christian community would reflect the description of ancient Israel found in Exodus 16:18. The wealthy would not be too wealthy and the poor would not be too poor.

For discussion 

  • Why was it so important to Paul for the Corinthian congregation to participate in collecting money for Christians in Jerusalem? What does the collection project say about Paul’s understanding of the nature of the church?
  • In many churches 2 Corinthians 8 is quoted as part of the annual stewardship campaign to support the mission of the congregation. Do you think there is too much or not enough emphasis on money in the stewardship campaign in your congregation?
  • Paul thought it was best if the gap between the rich and the poor not be too large. Does this principle apply to society today?