June 22, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Jesus was someone people wanted to touch and be touched by. But in the case of Jesus, such touches were about far more than the people’s desire to make contact with somebody famous. Jesus’ touch was said to have healing powers. As we can see in this story, some had concluded that Jesus was a type of magic object, a live wire who could give you a jolt of the divine whether he was aware of your touch or not.
It makes for a great story but notice how clever Mark was in composing it. Notice especially the role played by hands. Jairus does not simply ask Jesus to come and heal his daughter, he very specifically says, “Please come and put your hands on her.” In Mark’s gospel, Jesus has already performed any number of miracles that did not involve a physical touch. Yet Jairus very carefully requests the laying on of Jesus’ hands to bring about his daughter’s restoration.
As Jesus makes his way to Jairus’ house, a woman in the crowd touches Jesus to relieve her of a hemorrhage that had clearly consumed her life. So just after Jesus walks past her position in the larger crowd, she reaches out her hand, grabs a piece of his cloak, gives it a quick squeeze, and then lets go before she actually tugs on Jesus and so draws attention to herself. And she is instantly healed.
It’s surprising, isn’t it, that this method “works.” We ordinarily resist seeing Jesus as some kind of magic charm. We’d prefer to think that the miracles Jesus worked were done deliberately and as an act of his will. Reading this story for the first time, you wouldn’t expect this anonymous touching of Jesus to be effective. Yet it is.
Jesus notices that power had gone out from him, which is a curious way for Mark to put it. Lots of people were touching Jesus and jostling him at the time. Apparently none of them was tapping any divine power, however. That’s why the disciples are rather incredulous when Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” If you’ve ever been in a crowded elevator making room for still more people who want to get into the car, you know what this is like. Everybody is touching somebody as you all shuffle sideways and back to let someone in or out. In that situation it would seem odd to say, “Who touched me?”
However, that question would make sense even in an over-crowded elevator in case you felt that someone was making a grab for the wallet in your back pocket or in case you had reason to believe someone was molesting you sexually. When you sense something beyond a typical jostle in the crowd, you ask about it. In Mark 5 it’s the same for Jesus: someone had touched him with a purpose and that differentiated that touch from the general press of humanity that they were all enduring. So he asks about it. In 2008 I got to shake Barack Obama’s hand at a campaign event. Like others on the rope line, I had my hand extended but just as Obama got to me, he bent down to shake a little girl’s hand who was standing in front of me. Next thing I knew, my hand was right on top of the crown of Senator Obama’s head. I have a great picture of the glare a Secret Service agent gave me! Ordinary touching of the candidate’s hands drew no attention but this different (and unintended) touch got an agent’s attention! (The Senator didn’t seem to notice, however!) In any event, some touches are different than others. So also in Mark 5.
The woman in question is mortified. And I am using that word “mortified” deliberately. She is literally scared to death. You see, she didn’t belong in that crowd to begin with. She, too, had been forced to jostle with lots of folks as she jockeyed for position. What those other people didn’t know, however, was that according to Jewish law, every person who came into contact with this woman had been made ceremonially unclean. When I was young, the nature of her illness would have been described delicately by my mother as “a female problem.” Back when I was a kid, that was code for “Inquire no further.”
This woman had a “female problem” and according to ancient law, it made her an outcast. For the good of all, she needed to remain far away from other people because so long as her problem persisted, she carried the contagion of unholiness. Touch this woman or be touched by her, and you couldn’t go to God’s Temple for a week. In other words, if it becomes known that she was putting the community at risk, she could be stoned to death. She’s been socially dead for a dozen years now and although people might feel bad about that, there wasn’t anything they could do about it. But if she could not quietly accept her socially mortified status, the community would have no choice but to remove her forcibly before she did more damage.
So when Jesus singles her out as having touched him with a purpose, her joy at having been healed turns to instant dread. Just as her life was about to begin anew, it looked like it might end. That is why she appears before Jesus with fear and trembling. She wasn’t afraid Jesus would rebuke her mildly by saying, “Next time ask first, OK?” The trouble she was in was far more grave than having been a tad presumptuous.
But to her credit, she tells what Mark describes as “the whole truth.” She could have lied, claiming she had sought healing for a bad cold or a sore back. But no, she admits the nature of her ailment and you can be well assured that the whole crowd had a collective sharp intake of breath. Suddenly every person there was wondering if he had rubbed shoulders with this woman. “Who knows how many people she had made unclean in the last ten minutes alone!” people no doubt began to murmur to one another.
But before the imminent panic got rolling, Jesus did an amazing thing: he called this woman “Daughter” and sent her away with a benediction. Jesus restored her to the community and so conveyed to everyone there that the contagion of holiness that Jesus bore was now more powerful and more important than any potential contagion of unholiness that anyone else could possibly bear. And apparently it was enough to cleanse the whole crowd of people who had, technically, been ceremonially contaminated by her, too.
But that’s Jesus for you. Wherever he went he brought not only healing but he created again and again a whole new community, a whole new way to live together as sons and daughters of God.
Some years ago following the death of Pope John Paul II, the media ran many series of videos and photographs encapsulating the late pontiff’s career. Again and again what we saw in all that was the fact that no matter where the pope went, the one constant was the fierce desire people had to touch him. The New York Times published a particularly wonderful photo that showed this. It came from a visit the pope made to this country and specifically an appearance he made at a cathedral in Newark, New Jersey. The picture had been taken from the balcony and showed the pope from above and behind as he proceeded up the church’s center aisle. John Paul had both of his arms extended outward to the side. And from the pews lining the aisle were the extended hands of dozens of people stretching and reaching so that their hands could brush against one of his hands.
Robert F. Kennedy exuded a similar attraction. According to Bobby Kennedy’s aides, there were many times after campaign appearances in 1968 when Bobby had to throw away his shirt. So many people clutched and clawed to touch him that Bobby’s hands would be scratched and a bit bloody even as his shirt sleeves became tattered to shreds.
Far better than just seeing someone—including someone powerful or famous—is to make contact. That’s something Jesus knew a lot about, too.
2 Samuel 1:1-27
Author: Scott Hoezee
You can see why the Revised Common Lectionary wants you to jump from verse 1 to verse 17! There is an act of violence here in the skipped-over portion that tempts a Scripture reader to end the line “This is the Word of the Lord” in something of an interrogative mood: “The Word of the Lord???? Thanks be to God?”
In the part of the story we’re supposed to turn a blind eye to, David rewards a man’s honesty by killing him dead on the spot. A hapless Ameklite had obeyed the dying King Saul’s order to do him in before his approaching enemies had the chance to do so. “King Saul told me to kill him so I did” the man reported to David. (Scholars can sort out the discontinuity of this story with 1 Samuel 31.)
Literally torn up with grief over the death of both Saul and David’s best friend, Jonathan, David and company immediately begin to mourn. But the mourning goes on only so long before David asks the man how it was he thought it was acceptable to slay Yahweh’s “messiah,” his “anointed one”? David then orders the hapless man slain, and his compatriots swiftly comply.
But in verse 16 David says a curious thing. He speaks to the now-dead soldier and says “Your blood is on your own head because you said ‘I killed Yahweh’s messiah.’”
That’s curious because, of course, this man had said no such thing. Not literally anyway. He didn’t know he had killed any messianic figure, just a dying king who ordered him to finish him off. He clearly took no pleasure in the act and was even careful to bring back the royal crown to David (and, as already noted, was honest enough to tell David exactly what had taken place). He probably thought he’d be rewarded. Not quite. So following the man’s execution, David puts words in the dead man’s mouth as a way to make it clear that the punishment had fit the crime: raise your hand against the Lord’s messiah and you’ll suffer for it.
For his part David then goes on to sing a song of lament over Saul and Jonathan that was so lyric and so lofty and so laudatory of the dead king that you’d think Saul had been David’s BFF or something. Of course, the long and tortured history of Saul’s relationship to the one Saul perceived to be his upstart rival was anything but friendly or cordial. More than once Saul had tried to turn David into a wall sconce by trying to pin David to the wall with his spear. David had spent long and miserable stretches of time getting away from Saul, living life on the lam. Once David had a golden opportunity to dispatch with Saul himself but spared him (maybe realizing in his own mind that he, too, could not raise his hand against Yahweh’s messiah).
But all of that bad blood and sordid personal history disappear once Saul is dead. Suddenly David lauds him as though Saul had been the best thing to happen to Israel since manna in the wilderness. Well, what’s a little hagiography among friends, right? The fact of the matter was that despite his dismal track record and how relatively quickly even God had given up on Saul, the man had been Israel’s first king, he had been a significant figure, and now he was dead. So a proper song of lament was in order for the fallen leader of God’s chosen people.
But let’s not too quickly leave behind the scandal of this chapter. A man who knew not what he did was executed, and David justifies the execution by crediting to the dead man words he had neither said nor whose exact meaning or import he probably could have understood in the first place. Maybe David was justified in doing this. Probably he was. But years hence when David wants to build Yahweh a temple but is told not to on account of his long war-record and violent acts, is it just possible that this is one of those acts that God had in mind?
The fact will remain, however, that on this earth the ones who get designated as God’s “messiahs,” as the “anointed ones” of God’s own choosing, will often have a hard time. Violence and threats of violence will often be in the vicinity of the messiah, all the way down history’s twisting corridors to the day when God’s final Messiah will arrive only once again to have sinful people raise their hands against him and kill him.
Except that on that occasion, the people who knew not what they were doing were forgiven, not slain. The Pharisees and Roman officials and thugs and soldiers—each of whom could have in essence been credited with as much as saying “I killed Yahweh’s Messiah” just as David alleged against the soldier in 2 Samuel 1—don’t die on account of what they did to no less than God’s own Son, the Christ, the truest Messiah of them all. No, somehow and paradoxically the results of their actions against the Messiah brought salvation and new life. God snapped the cycles of violence surrounding his messiahs by letting the ultimate Messiah die a life-giving death.
Yes, the Lectionary would have us skip the part of 2 Samuel 1 that forces us to grapple with all this. But it’s not too much of a stretch, is it, to see the trajectory from the tragedy of this chapter all the way to God’s ultimate way of dealing with all such violence and tragedies. And maybe, therefore, there’s some Gospel Good News tucked into all that after all.
When Ronald Reagan died some years ago, it was hardly surprising to find the media—and a good bit of the country, too—singing the Gipper’s praises even as his various failings as president were smoothed over, skipped altogether, or treated as asterisks to a career that was otherwise hailed as a singular success. I say this was not too surprising given Reagan’s enduring popularity among many people as well as given the fact that even those who disagreed with him politically often found Reagan personally irresistible, witty, and charming.
You wouldn’t have expected the same thing following Richard Nixon’s death but, as a matter of fact, pretty much the same thing happened then. Although he by no means committed the pastoral error of trying to “preach someone into heaven,” even the Rev. Billy Graham—who delivered the funeral sermon—did some posthumous propping up of the single most disgraced president in U.S. history. In fact, Graham began his funeral sermon by quoting David’s words about Saul from this very passage! (Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7R9O1RYYqg ). Suddenly Nixon was no longer the fear-mongering, super-suspicious Watergate figure but a young man growing up near Yorba Linda, California, and finding hope in the far-off sound of a train’s whistle. Nixon was a dream-filled boy who rose to the heights and did many great things.
Or so they said after he was dead.
This kind of thing happens when famous leaders die, and it was no different in how David summed up Saul’s life in the song recorded in 2 Samuel 1. But is this a bad thing? Was David wrong for not creating a more nuanced, historically balanced recounting of Saul’s life in the song he composed?
No, history—even the history of Saul as recorded in the Bible—will record the whole truth about any person’s life. But in death, is it too much to hope that what is good about each person will shine more brightly than the parts of one’s life that are dimmer? And if God’s own grace washes over us—as believers know it does in their baptisms—will it not be the case even for Almighty God that what he has to say about each one of us—Saul, David, Nixon, Reagan, you, me—will be the good things, the shining moments, the things that God shines up by his own grace?
Grace at the end. A fonder hope cannot be had!
Author: Doug Bratt
Even the most capable biblical scholars find Psalm 130 hard to categorize. After all, it beautifully combines a plea for forgiveness with an expression of trust that contains an element of thanksgiving. However, perhaps it’s precisely that combination of elements that makes it such an eloquent Old Testament expression of the gospel. Martin Luther called Psalm 130 a “proper master and doctor of Scripture,” by which he seemed to mean that it teaches the gospel’s fundamental truths about human sinfulness, God’s grace and the appropriate human response of gratitude. The church father Augustine even supposedly had Psalm 130’s words inscribed on the wall in the bedroom where he lay dying so that he might make its words his own.
Since the psalmist doesn’t identify the particular “depths” into which she has plunged, the Spirit opens Psalm 130’s interpretation to a variety of ills with which worshipers can identify. Her phrase “Out of the depths” may sound like the psalmist feels like she’s praying from the bottom of her own grave. We might even think of it as the cry of someone who’s fallen into the bottom of some kind of deep well, hole or crevice.
Yet as Christopher Breck Reid notes, “depths” refers to any chaotic forces that threaten human life. So perhaps it would be most appropriate to imagine the psalmist feeling as if he’s crying out from the bottom of some deep body of water. We might identify with the psalmist’s plight by imagining ourselves falling out of a boat and sinking to the bottom of a deep lake. Perhaps we might even imagine ourselves wearing some clothing that weighs us down and prevents us from rising back to the surface. In that case, we could only “cry” for help.
However, the “depths” out of which the psalmist cries isn’t some kind of trouble caused by an external threat. The “depths” seems to refer to Israel and the poet’s sins. What threatens not only her emotional but also physical well-being is unfaithfulness to and rebellion against the God who has created her.
The psalmist’s cry offers those who preach and teach Psalm 130 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their own responses to their sin. Do any people naturally think of individual and corporate sin as plunging them into depths that threaten their well-being? Have we become so cavalier about sin that we no longer view it as a threat to us, except when someone else sins against us? Some modern Christians are reluctant to talk about sin, preferring, instead, to talk about “mistakes that were made” or “errors in judgment.” Psalm 130 offers a wonderful liturgical tool for individual and corporate reflection on and confession of sin’s utter seriousness.
Worshipers who have felt the weight of their own and society’s sins may feel as though neither God nor anyone else can hear us when we plead for help. Yet the psalmist begs God to pay attention to his plea for mercy. He recognizes that he can’t simply pull himself out of sin’s depths by resolving to try harder to be more faithfully obedient. He recognizes he must rely on God to graciously extricate him from the depths to which sin has plunged him.
Yet Psalm 130’s poet also recognizes that she doesn’t deserve to have God hear her cry from the depths. After all, she realizes, if God “kept score” of sin against God like people keep score of slights and offenses against us, she’d remain “out;” she’d die in the depths of her sin.
Even the most faithful worshipers naturally keep careful count of the times others sin against us. Even when we forgive each other, it’s tempting to nurse grudges caused by others’ sins against us. Thankfully, then, God is fundamentally different than us. With God there is no careful record keeping of sin, but “forgiveness.”
Of course, Christians understand the nature of that forgiveness slightly differently than the poet did. The New Testament helps worshipers to recognize that our forgiveness comes at the steep cost of the obedient life and sacrificial death of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Yet even long before Jesus lived, died, rose again from the dead and ascended to the heavenly realm, God showed the psalmist that God is a forgiving God. As a result, in spite of his overwhelming sense of guilt, the psalmist feels the right to cry out to God for help.
She even recognizes she can afford to wait for God to graciously respond. It sometimes seems as though God is a bit slow to rescue us from the depths of our sin. Yet because God is a forgiving God, the psalmist’s knows her wait for the Lord isn’t in vain. She can wait for God’s gracious forgiveness as eagerly as a night watchman waits for the first streaks of dawn to paint the night sky.
Interestingly, Psalm 130’s original language doesn’t make the tense of “wait” clear. So Reid suggests that it would be an interesting exercise for worshipers to ask themselves what difference the tense of “wait” would make for this psalm. If the poet is saying, “I have waited,” we might see this as an affirmation of God’s coming to her in the depths in the past that strengthens her confidence that God will rescue her again.
If the psalmist is saying, “I am waiting,” the poignancy of that wait deepens our sense of her eager expectation that God will again soon rescue her. If the poet is saying, “I will wait,” it’s as if she’s professing that she will wait as long as it takes for God to graciously redeem her.
The psalmist also recognizes that because God is a gracious God, the most appropriate response of worshipers to God is that of fear. This, however, isn’t an abused animal’s cowering fear of a tormentor or a child’s whimpering fear of a a thunderstorm. It’s not appropriate for worshipers to be terrified of God. Rather, the fear of which the poet speaks is that of honor, worship, trust and service. Those who fear God are those who are eager to respond to God’s redemption with their faithful obedience.
However, those who fear the Lord are also those who respond to God’s redemption by calling others to join in faithful obedience. So the psalmist calls Israel to join him in putting her hope not in her own efforts, but in the Lord. Those who’ve been in the depths know they can have no confidence in themselves. Our only hope is the God who graciously forgives.
However, the psalmist also seems to call Israel to join her in waiting for God’s redemption. Perhaps her own experience of having to wait for God’s rescue helps her to recognize how difficult such waiting can be. So returning to verse 3’s theme of “sins,” the poet calls Israel to continue to hope in the Lord whose love never fails and whose redemption triumphs over even the darkest sin. While Psalm 130 reflects a deep awareness of human sin and sinfulness, it also affirms that God’s gracious redemption eventually sweeps away even the most awful iniquities.
On this fifth Sunday after Pentecost in year B, the Lectionary appoints passages that also speak of various “depths.” 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 is the Old Testament reading. Its King David has been plunged into the depths of grief by the death of Saul and Jonathan. The depths of grief also characterizes Mark 5:21-43’s account of Jesus’ interaction with Jairus whose daughter has died. God lifts Jairus from those depths through Jesus’ raising of the girl from death. That account brackets the account of another “raising from the depths,” that of Jesus’ healing of a woman who has bled for twelve years.
Anyone who has ever worked an overnight or “graveyard” shift knows the poignancy of the psalmist’s “wait” (5-6). As the night stretches out what sometimes feels interminably, various “watchmen” will do almost anything to keep themselves awake. Especially if there’s not a lot of work to do besides keep an eye on things, watchmen figuratively if not literally eagerly watch the clock or scan the skies for signs that the morning is dawning and their shift is ending.
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Author: Stan Mast
A sermon on this text will touch nerves, because it touches money. Many preachers don’t want to touch that subject with a ten foot pole. But it’s a good thing that the lectionary confronts us with this text on this 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, because money looms large in every Christian’s life as we await the return of our Lord. The acquisition, preservation, and distribution of money occupy a large part of our time and attention and, unfortunately, our hearts. Jesus warned his disciples that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” And Paul said bluntly that “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Our text for today is part of the Bible’s most exhaustive treatment of an aspect of money management that isn’t mentioned frequently Money or Fortune magazines, namely, giving.
This text is a case study in how to ask for generous giving in a positive pastoral way. The sometimes abrasive Paul shows us how to approach this sensitive subject with a gentle touch. The church at Corinth in Greece was not having the budget crisis that modern day Greece is experiencing. They were, however, struggling with the financial pledges they had made the year before when Paul wrote his first letter to them. Now it was some months later, and Paul writes this letter to them about their year-end giving, the way our Deacons do at the end of every year. Paul treats giving not as an obligation, but as an opportunity. Even though these Christians needed a bit of a push, he doesn’t blast them with guilt; rather he praises them with grace.
Though the lectionary reading begins at verse 7, I’m going to back up to verse 1 because that’s where Paul begins his circle of praise. What a brilliant place to start a sermon on giving! It’s hard to over-estimate how much people crave praise? Picture a cat being petted—eyes closed, back arched, undulating under the strokes of your hand, purring deeply. That’s how normal human beings react to praise. We love it. We need it. We can’t get enough of it. There is nothing quite so nourishing to the human soul as praise, approval, affirmation. Many of us grew up loved, but not affirmed. To this day we have an insatiable need for praise.
Well, in these words God praises the givers at Corinth through the circle of praise that Paul creates. That’s a good thing to do in church—create a circle of praise. It is so easy to get caught up in a circle of negativity, a gossip circle where we only pass on bad news about people. Even high minded Bible Study groups can turn into circles of criticism. Paul does the opposite: he creates a circle of praise by passing on positive reports about other people. He begins in verse 1 by praising the churches of Macedonia, which was a bit north of Greece, churches in places like Thessalonica and Philippi. “And now, brothers and sisters, I want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty well up in rich generosity.”
Paul had already been praising the Corinthians to the Macedonians. In II Cor. 9:2, he says, “For I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Greece were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action.” In those few words we see the circle of praise of praise; around and around it goes. Paul praises the Corinthians to the Macedonians and then praises the Macedonians to the Corinthians. He is stirring them up to generous giving by praising them for their generous giving. You can almost hear them purr, can’t you?
We can learn much about giving from these words of praise. I was struck by the strange formula for giving in verse 2. In Money and Fortune, you can find formulas for investing and for retirement, but what’s the formula for our giving? It probably goes something like this. I gave this much last year. How much should I give this year? How has the Lord blessed? How will he bless? Let’s see, I’m going to retire, so my income will be less than it is now, but my expenses will be less, maybe. Who knows? I will give this much to this cause and that much to that cause.
Here’s the formula of the Macedonians. “Severe Trial plus Extreme Poverty multiplied by Overwhelming Joy equals Rich Generosity.” Wait a minute! Severe trials could make us pull back in our giving. And when you add in extreme poverty you are sure to get a reduction in giving, just for survival reasons. But there was another part of the formula, their overwhelming joy at what God had done for them in Christ. The result was rich generosity. No wonder Paul praises them.
He goes on with an incredible testimony. “For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability, beyond their financial means.” They didn’t do this because Paul had mugged them with commands and laid a guilt trip on them. No, says Paul, they did this “entirely on their own.” It was their idea. And they were so passionate about giving that “they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” Isn’t that astounding? No wonder Paul praised them. He didn’t have to plead with them to give. They pleaded with him for the privilege of giving. That’s how they saw stewardship. It is a privilege to give, not an obligation. They saw it not as letting go of their hard earned money, but as providing a service to others.
What in the world would give the Macedonians such a praiseworthy perspective on giving? Remember, they didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, they were extremely poor. So it can’t be wealth that made them generous. And their lives were anything but easy. They had been severely persecuted, according to the letter to the Thessalonians. Why did they practice extreme generosity? In the following verses Paul gives us two reasons or perspectives as he praises them.
In verse 5, he mentions the first. They “gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.” Before they gave their money to the church represented by Paul, they gave themselves to Christ. Well, of course! Why in the world would anyone give any money to the church? The church is filled with difficulty, even scandal. Who knows what “they” will do with it? Who knows if “they” are managing things well? “They” often do things we don’t like. Sometimes we’re very unhappy with our own church. So why give to “the church?” Well, says Paul, stewardship begins when you take your eyes off that human institution and fix them upon Jesus and give yourself to him. Generosity flows out of a heart that is surrendered to Jesus. “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold….” That’s the first reason for the praiseworthy giving of these poor Christians—before they gave their money to the church, they gave themselves to Jesus.
They did that because they knew that Jesus had given himself to them. Verse 8 spells out this second reason with as rich a description of Jesus’ work as we find anywhere in Scripture. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” That explains everything. They were gracious in their giving because they never forgot the grace of Jesus to them. If he could become poor in order to make them rich, then they could give generously even though they were poor. As Paul puts it in verse 7, they excelled in the grace of giving because they had been the recipients of overflowing grace from Christ. As John Calvin said about this verse, nothing else can explain such giving. It was grace, all grace.
Having praised the Macedonians (and by implication the Corinthians) for their giving, Paul now “makes the ask.” He moves from the indicative to the imperative, except that his imperative isn’t very demanding. Indeed, Paul emphasizes that this isn’t a command (verse 8); rather it is advice (verse 10). There is a subtle force to his advice; in verse 8 he says that this matter of giving is a test of the sincerity of their love. And he challenges them to excel in giving as they already excel in Word ministry (faith, speech, knowledge) and in character (earnestness and love). In other words, you aren’t a complete Christian unless you excel in the grace of giving. That’s pretty direct, but Paul doesn’t lay a burden on them. In verse 10, he says, my advice about this is “what is best for you,” what will benefit you. He is not talking about some financial reward there; this is no “give in order to get” health and wealth gospel. Paul sees this matter of giving as a grace thing, not a reward thing.
But precisely because they have been the recipients of so much grace, they should “finish the work….” That’s the closest Paul comes to an outright imperative here—just “finish.” Last year you were the first church to be moved by the needs of the church in Jerusalem; you were so willing and eager to take up an offering to alleviate their poverty. In the interim, something (perhaps the flap over the overt sinner in the midst of the Corinthian church) had hindered the completion of this benevolent project. Now it’s time to match your initial willingness with completion of the offering. It doesn’t matter how much you give. Give according to what you have been given by God. What matters is that your heart is in it, “for if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable to God.”
With those words about proportional giving, Paul leans into his profound conclusion about equality. He has already hinted at this in his reminder about how Christ exchanged his wealth for poverty so that we who are poor might become rich. Now he is explicit. His goal in this matter of giving is “that there might be equality.” In this age of growing income inequality, Paul’s words will strike some of our hearers as more than a little socialistic, if not communistic. But Paul is not talking about communism; he is talking about community. He is not encouraging a government-driven income redistribution; he is calling the community of Christ to voluntarily and graciously give of their wealth so that the needs of all are well met.
We must be as careful as Paul when we preach this part of the Gospel. Paul is very clear that he is not interested in making the Jewish Christians rich by making the Corinthian Christians poor. He simply desires that everyone has enough. He advocates for a leveling in the church—not a lowering so that all are equally poor, but a raising so that all are equally rich. He is not talking about making the rich poorer, but making the poor richer. His is not a “take from the rich and give to the poor” philosophy; rather he invites the rich to give voluntarily and graciously, so that the poor won’t be poor anymore.
Paul is realistic. He is not calling for an endless, one-way flow of benevolence with the result that the recipients become dependent on the givers. Elsewhere Paul preaches on hard work and the responsible use of money. Here he says, “At the present time, your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.” In other words, what goes around comes around. In a community formed by grace, we take care of each other according to our ability, so that there may be equality. Paul is not advocating for the abolition of property and wealth; he is advocating for the abolition of poverty by the free sharing of our wealth.
The cartoon shows two men standing outside the door of their church. They are dressed only in their boxer shorts and t-shirts. They have a dazed expression on their faces. One guy says, “That was the best stewardship sermon I ever heard.” “Yeah,” said the other one, “I feel like the man in the story of the Good Samaritan, like I’ve been jumped by a gang of thieves, robbed, beaten, stripped, and left for dead on the side of the road.” Have you ever felt mugged by a stewardship sermon? Preaching faithfully on this text should leave people feeling richer, because they catch a vision of gracious giving.
But won’t giving some of our hard earned money cause us to be poorer? Well, yes, if there were a limited sum of money available in the world. But the world is not the dispenser of wealth. God is. The hymn, “God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending,” acknowledges in lovely poetry that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)
“God, whose giving knows no ending, from your rich and endless store:
Nature’s wonder, Jesus’ wisdom, costly cross, grave’s shattered door,
Gifted by you, we turn to you, offering up ourselves in praise;
Thankful song shall rise forever, gracious donor of our days.
Skills and time are ours for pressing toward the goals of Christ, your Son;
All at peace in health and freedom, races joined, the Church made one.
Now direct our daily labor, lest we strive for self alone;
Born with talents, make us servants fit to answer at your throne.
Treasure, too, you have entrusted, gained through powers your grace conferred;
Ours to use for home and kindred, and to spread the Gospel Word.
Open wide our hands in sharing, as we heed Christ’s ageless call,
Healing, teaching, and reclaiming, serving you by loving all.
As Paul says in II Corinthians 9:7, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all you need, you will abound in every good work.”