This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers come, in a sense, with hands outstretched as we speak on giving. Yet if we’re going to do so, we’d better come up with some good reasons.
So why should we preach or teach on what Paul calls “the grace of giving” (7b)? “What’s the matter?” some of our hearers may wonder as they hear this. “Do we have a budget deficit?”
Most Christians, I at least suspect, would prefer simply not to talk (or hear) about things like money and giving in church. What’s more, some suggest that the church already talks about money too much. So why should we proclaim what Paul calls “the grace of giving”?
Some biblical scholars lend credence to the church’s aversion to talking about money by suggesting that Paul didn’t actually write 2 Corinthians 8’s call for the grace of giving. They suggest that later editors added it as a kind of separate “business letter.” So why should we proclaim what Paul may not have even written in the first place on what our text calls “the grace of giving”?
Those who somehow proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson should begin by clearing up misconceptions about that proclamation. First, we should do what we can to disconnect it from any financial struggles our churches or other institutions may be experiencing. Giving is a grace even, or perhaps especially, when our institutions are flush with money.
Second, proclaimers should also insist that we’re not talking about giving to somehow shame our hearers into being more “gracious.” Paul, after all, isn’t trying to impose some new legalism about giving on the Corinthians to whom he writes. So we proclaim 2 Corinthians 8 with the prayers that the Holy Spirit will use it to help God’s adopted children grow in our desire to excel in the grace of giving.
Verse 1, as well as verse 7, suggests that giving is a “grace” that God gives. Yet they don’t refer to what we might call “saving grace.” Instead Paul seems to point here to what we might call a “virtue.” Apparently the apostle suggests that generous giving is a good characteristic for Jesus’ friends.
Yet by calling generous giving a “grace,” Paul implies that outside of God’s redeeming grace even the godliest people look out mainly or even only for our own interests and self-preservation. So God’s dearly beloved people want to give generously because it’s a virtue that God gives us. It’s a kind of gift from God that God expects us to apply in thankful response to God’s saving grace.
More fundamentally, however, Jesus’ friends want to excel in the grace of giving because it’s part of our grateful reception of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul tells the Corinthians in verse 9. “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
Paul doesn’t seem to be alluding to Jesus’ earthly ministry’s poverty here. He doesn’t appear to primarily refer to Jesus’ status as a wandering preacher who had no place to call home. No, the apostle appears to be contrasting God the Son’s life in the heavenly realm with his life on earth.
After all, before his incarnation, God the Son was rich in every way. When the Holy Spirit conceived him in Mary, however, the second Person of the Trinity voluntarily surrendered virtually all that. While Jesus remained his Father’s equal, he traded heaven’s glory for the poverty that was a life of rejection, humiliation, betrayal and unjust execution.
The incarnate Son of God gave up virtually all he had that we might become what Paul calls “rich” in verse 9. After all, by his life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has graciously brought us into fellowship with God. Our status as God’s children makes Jesus’ friends wealthy beyond imagining.
Yet through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ also graced his adopted siblings with the riches of a Christian community that’s full of new relationships. He has also given us an eternal inheritance that no stock market slide or economic slump can shrink.
Yet over the years I’ve sensed that those who excel in this grace of giving must battle a temptation toward smugness. Jesus’ friends’ giving of something like a tithe of our income may tend to make us feel self-righteous. I naturally look at others’ giving to the church, or the lack of it, and feel pretty self-satisfied.
I suspect that’s why Paul points us directly to Jesus’ generosity. We, after all, may be more generous than any other human being. So God’s adopted children learn what it really means to excel in the grace of giving only when we stand beneath Christ’s cross. Christians compare our giving, not to each other’s, but to Jesus Christ’s. His generosity is, as we sometimes sing, “so amazing, so divine” that it “demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Yet in spite of Christ’s impoverishment for our sakes, Paul doesn’t expect Jesus’ friends to give so much that we also impoverish ourselves. In verse 13 the apostle, instead, says, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed.”
So Paul’s chief concern is that all of God’s adopted children might know their heavenly Father’s material as well as spiritual blessings equally. The apostle simply wants us to at least have equal access to God’s material, as well as spiritual blessings.
At least some Christians insist that once we follow Jesus, all of our problems disappear. Others, however, suggest that Christianity solves only our deepest problems and creates a whole new set of problems for us. Doesn’t, after all, Paul’s insistence on economic equality among Christians create one of those new problems? How, with perhaps a billion Christians in the world, can God’s beloved people even begin to promote economic equality among them, to say nothing of the other billions of people?
Such problems for which there are few obvious solutions overwhelm and almost paralyze some Christians. That’s why it’s so critical that we, in a real sense, begin to excel in the grace that is giving right where we are. Jesus’ friends can’t alleviate all of the financial misery among all of the Christians in, for example, the Third and Fourth World. We can, however, by the power of the Holy Spirit, begin to create equality among God’s people in our own community.
However, this also points to a potential fundamental misunderstanding about our text. Preachers often use this passage to challenge people to give more faithfully to the church. Paul, however, seems to be talking far more directly about excelling in the grace of giving to help people who are materially poor within the church. So he largely calls Jesus’ friends, at least in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, to generously give to people who are materially poor.
Paul, however, may also embed a third motivation for excelling in this grace that is giving to the poor in verse 8. “I want to test the sincerity of your love,” Paul writes the Corinthians there.
While Christians talk much about love, the Bible also almost constantly challenges us to practice love. So a kind of measuring stick for the sincerity of Jesus’ friends’ love might be the size of our saving accounts and investment portfolios. The apostle might encourage those material resources’ size to reflect the grace that is giving, especially to the poor.
In verse 8 Paul goes on to introduce a concept with which 21st century North American Christians are perhaps both unfamiliar and uncomfortable. He challenges his hearers to compare our giving “with the earnestness of others.”
Paul seems to suggest that Jesus’ friends’ primary measuring stick for our giving is Jesus Christ. However, his extensive treatment of the Macedonians’ generosity implies that the Corinthians should also compare their generosity to theirs. They, according to verse 4, “urgently pleaded” with Paul for the “privilege” of sharing in collection for Jerusalem’s Christians. The Macedonian Christians basically begged Paul to let them have the favor of being generous with needy fellow believers.
So why did the Macedonians beg Paul for the privilege of supporting Jerusalem’s needy Christians? God has transformed their desires to make them exceptionally generous. As 2 Corinthians 8 proclaimers promote the grace that is giving, we pray that God will also transform our attitudes in a similar way, so that we too may desire to joyfully excel in the grace of generous giving.
Landon Parvin tells a story about a charity organization’s chairman’s visit to an infamous miser. “Sir,” the fund-raiser told him, “our records show that despite your wealth, you’ve never even once given to our drive.”
“Do your records show that I have an elderly mother who was left penniless when my father died?” the tightwad fumed. “Do your records show that I have a disabled brother who is unable to work? Do your records show that I have a widowed sister with small children who can barely make ends meet?”
“No, sir,” the embarrassed volunteer stuttered. “Our records don’t show those things.” “Well,” the miser huffed, “I don’t give to any of them, so why should I give anything to you?”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 27, 2021
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 Commentary