Most ministers get uncomfortable where the subject of money is concerned. So we make jokes about it, like the time I was at a church where the minister said “Do you believe in the hereafter?” People applauded that they did so believe. “Good,” the minister went on “because we’re here after a good offering!” Ha ha. Or we try to avoid coming off like some high pressure televangelist and so we mumble lines about “giving according to how you have been blessed” or “please give whatever the Lord leads you to contribute.” I have even heard pastors say just before the offering is taken, “If you are a visitor here today, we do not want your money – your presence here is gift enough for us so just drop in one of those Visitor cards so we can connect with you.”
The implication: once you become a member, prepare to dig deep!
Mostly the letters of Paul in the New Testament deal with some pretty weighty spiritual and theological subjects. A lot of the subject matter is, in other words, rather lofty. But here and there in Paul’s correspondence with the early church we come back down to earth to deal with some rather mundane practical matters. Like the need to give generous financial offerings to support the poor and to help congregations that were less well off than some others.
And so we come to 2 Corinthians 8 where Paul both lays it on pretty thick and tries to be really kind and relaxed about it at the same time. To see the fuller picture, it is best to back up to 2 Corinthians 8:1 and not just jump in midstream in verse 7 as the Lectionary suggests.
First, an example: the churches in Macedonia. “Woo-Hoo were THEY ever generous!” Paul gushes. “We didn’t even want them to give too much but they loved the work of the Lord SO MUCH and so eagerly wanted to join this work that, well, let’s just say it was amazing.”
OK, so an exemplary bar has been set for the Corinthians to try to clear.
Then, “Of course, you Corinthians are RICH in every way: knowledge, giftedness, faith, earnestness, love. Wow, you are something else. So wouldn’t it be a shame if the only other area where you did not excel were in the arena of being generous? You don’t want that to happen, do you? Now . . . I am not ordering you to do this. I cannot command generosity. I just want you to see yourselves as stacking up really well against some fellow churches elsewhere. And, of course, I hate even to point this out but then there is that whole example of Jesus to ponder: you know, how he who was rich gave it all up so he can make OTHERS rich? You have heard of that one, right . . .?”
No pressure! Just want you to be like Jesus is all.
But then very pragmatically: “Look, we are not trying to make things hard for you but rather we want to make it just a bit easier for others. We want all the Lord’s people to be treated equally and have equal opportunities to minister and spread the gospel. That’s all! Do you remember hearing that old story about how God fed the Israelites manna in the wilderness and that how no matter how much anyone gathered, it all shook out even-steven in the end? Well there you go: when everybody takes care of everybody else, voila!, it all works out.”
Since Paul is an Apostle and all I won’t suggest that this manna analogy feels a little strained to me. But is point is that God takes care of his people through his people and so this business of giving and making offerings for the poor is not finally a non-theological, non-spiritual concern. This is not just some nitty-gritty and earthy business we have to attend to but that has no connection to a living faith in Christ. This is all connected: God’s provision for his people, Christ’s example, Christ’s sacrifice, and a love that abounds to all.
Even today we may feel awkward talking about money. Knowing how much any given church member makes and how much they give is often guarded with the same privacy we reserve for how married folks make love. You just don’t talk about some things. At one church I served, when it was suggested that the Elders be privy to what the members in their Districts gave to the church each year, nearly to a person the Elders said they absolutely did not want to know that because that kind of personal information carried too much of a burden with it. “I don’t want to have to look at George or Jill and have their giving information arise in my mind! I would really rather not know.”
And it’s true to a degree. As a pastor you sometimes find out that a member of your church whom you know to make a ton of money every year actually gives almost nothing to the church or he provides a few little “in kind” services for a few members and calls it good. Once you know that, it’s hard to forget—if you hear someone else praising that person, in the back of your mind you find yourself thinking “Yeah well . . .”. Conversely, sometimes you find out that a person who all things being equal can be really difficult to deal with gives over and beyond what you might have expected and wouldn’t you know it, that somehow (sometimes anyway) softens whatever feelings of frustration you might otherwise have had with him or her.
Whatever the situation, these can be dicey subjects to deal with in the church. But deal with them we must. Yes, even the Apostle Paul tap-dances a little when he has to bring this subject up in his letters—he was a touch squeamish too perhaps. But it is finally spiritual, it is finally theological, it does finally have a lot to do with Jesus whose example and inspiration should mean as much to us on the fiscal front as it does on most any other moral front you could name.
On “Money” from Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. Harper & Row San Francisco, 1988, pp. 80-81.
“The more you think about it, the less you understand it. The paper it’s printed on isn’t worth a red cent. There was a time you could take it to the bank and get gold or silver for it, but all you’d get now is a blank stare. If the government declared that the leaves of trees were money so there would be enough for everybody, money would be worthless. It has worth only because there is not enough for everybody. It has worth only because the government declares it has worth and because people trust the government in that one particular although in every other particular they wouldn’t trust it around the corner. The value of money, like stocks and bonds, goes up and down for reasons even the experts cannot explain and at moments nobody can predict, so you can be a millionaire one moment and a pauper the next without lifting a finger. Great fortunes can be made and lost completely on paper. There is more concrete reality in a baby’s throwing its rattle out of the crib. There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up. Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Maybe the reason is not that the rich are so wicked they are kept out of the place but that they are so out of touch with reality they can’t see it’s a place worth getting into.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 1, 2018
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 Commentary