Pentecost 5b “Giving under Pandemic Pressure”

Readings for this Fifth Sunday After Pentecost are:

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Wisdom of Solomon 1:13–15, 2:23–24 or Lamentations 3:22–33

Psalm                    Psalm 30

New Testament     2 Corinthians 8:7–15

Gospel                   Mark 5:21–43

These lessons are about as disparate as any in the lectionary. They hardly come down on any one or two themes.

The lesson I choose to deal with here is 2 Corinthians, because, when listening for God’s Word in the Bible, it’s always best to listen hardest to the things that are most uncomfortable. God always prefers us not to stay in a rut, but to change direction for the better in our lives.

I don’t like 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 because they have had the life squeezed out of them by people who want money so badly they can taste it. They mine thee chapters for the stuff they can use to get more dollars, but they forget about the main points  Paul makes.

Paul is talking money here. He wants the Christ followers of Corinth to pitch into a collection he has been working on. But Paul’s reasoning is surprising and provocative to repentance if we read it correctly: surprising to those who are hit up regularly for money, provocative to repentance for the money loving ones who mine these verses for fund-raising leverage.

And, certainly, money-loving fund-raising pressure is one of the dominant symptoms of the present pandemic. If you are like me, every day your physical and virtual mailboxes are bursting with pitches. Every good cause is hurting. Everyone is in desperate need. “We need your money NOW!”

To get the full effect of Paul’s Zen-like pitch in our reading for today, it’s best to back up to the start of the chapter, and even before. Paul refers at several places in his letters to this collection. He believes it extremely important to raise money from the believers of the Hellenistic gentile and Diaspora Jewish communities of the western Mediterranean for the sake of the poor and hungry Jewish/Christians back in Judea who have been hit hard by a famine. It is important to bring unity to God’s people. Paul fervently believes God has opened up the time of salvation, when gentiles and Jews, male and female, slave and free, will be brought together. And this gift of the gentile world for the suffering Judeans, will be a gesture of good will that will wound many wounds.

Paul’s first move is to get at what real wealth is. The churches of Macedonia, to the north of Corinth, have given joyfully and generously out of their own “extreme poverty.” Up in Macedonia for everyone who has embraced Paul’s gospel of Christ there have been dozens of their neighbors attacking them. They have lost friends, jobs, and customers in their shops. But poverty of silver and gold has been outweighed by wealth of joy in faith and generosity of spirit. These Macedonians have begged for the privilege of paying the expenses of Paul, Silas, and Timothy in their missionary work, and now they are leading the way in the great collection for the Judeans. So, the Macedonians have exemplified spiritual wealth.

Paul has written previously in his first letter to the Corinthian Christ-followers that they had a dangerous understanding of spiritual wealth. They rightly cherished the emotionally powerful, charismatic fruits of the Spirit of God. They were blessed with knowledge, or interpretive insights into Scriptural truth, prophetic insights into current politics and events, ecstatic speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, and dramatic eloquence. But these gifts, used wrongly, just puffed them up. It made some of them feel spiritually superior to others. Personality cults cropped up as people chose their own celebrity champions of faith. So, this spiritual wealth became a cause of deep divisions in the church of Corinth.

So, here in 2 Corinthians 8, Paul is deadly afraid of using the money pitch to touch off another spiral of spiritual egoism. In verse 7 he uses irony: Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” His audience would have immediately remembered how Paul had condemned their boastfulness about their misuse of these same “gifts,” and counseled instead a love that is the greatest gift because it builds up the Body of Christ.

To this he adds two more points. The first is that he is not giving them an amount to shoot for—a giving goal derived from some formula based on the needs of the Judeans, or the bank accounts of the Corinthians. He simply says, in verse 12, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable…”

Then he adds in vs. 13, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you.” Instead he evokes the ideal of “fair balance.” And if you wonder what that looks like, follow Paul’s quote from Exodus 16.18: God schools the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings. They think God is not fair, and life is not fair, because they are hungry. God answers by raining down manna; but this stuff is magical. Some gather more, some less, but when it’s measured out, it is all the same. No one had too much or too little.

For the pitchmen too little is simply too little. “You aren’t reaching your giving goal. You aren’t tithing.” For the fund raising pros too much pressure isn’t enough. They show you pictures and charts. They tell you stories. They say if you really had faith you would dig down and sacrifice,  and it will all come back to you double. But Paul is right for not pressuring. Some in Corinth will not be able to send a single mite to the collection, but may need to be encouraged to swallow their pride and receive help from the church. Gladness and joy is the only true measure of giving.

In or out of the pandemic we should always measure our giving by our gladness. When we give of our time, our talent, or our money, we should think, “What am I rich in, even in the midst of poverty? And how can I give until I feel joy?”

One more set of comments on the option A Old Testament reading from the Wisdom of Solomon. Protestants probably won’t hear this read in church since it is among those books of the Greek translation of Jewish Scriptures called the Septuagint. Protestants call these books Apocrypha, or “hidden,” Roman Catholics refer to them as “deutero-canonical” and the Orthodox simply say they should be read.

The Wisdom of Solomon should be read together with the Gospel of John. More about that later. But it is a great example of the way many currents of many global ways of thought come together to form our religious thinking.

Its date is uncertain, but probably about the time of Christ, and from Alexandria, Egypt. It was originally written in the better Greek, with many words used only in the first century of the Common Era. And its thought is much like that of the Jew Philo, who himself was greatly influenced by Plato and Stoic philosophy. And the Wisdom of Solomon is famous for its affirmation of natural theology–that you can know the true God properly without special revelation, for the idea of the separation of the soul and body, and the idea of the immortality of the soul.

In 1.7 the Wisdom of Solomon says the Spirit of the Lord has filled the world and holds all things together. While Plato thought of a great, high, transcendent God, Stoicism thought in terms of an imminent God who fills the cosmos and each person, and holds all things together in the form of the eternal Logos. Then, in our reading we find that God and Logos creates life and not death. Death is brought in through unrighteousness, while righteousness is eternal life: “…for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.”

In the 11th chapter of John we hear Jesus prepare us for the raising of Lazarus. He says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Resurrection is one thing. Death is the enemy, and Resurrection is the great slap in the face of Death and the devil. But Life, in the Gospel of John, is clearly eternal life.

Talk of Resurrection affirms the seriousness of death–it is a great enemy that separates us from our bodies, from our loved ones, and from this world and all its complexity. But talk of Eternal life affirms that this biological and bodily life on earth is more than just a staging ground for what really matters. This life really matters because, through the enlightenment of faith we live the eternal existence. We love one another as Christ loved us, and this is life abundant. This is Eternal Life.

So, Jesus, and the Bible (including the Wisdom of Solomon), combine all these ideas. There is the enemy of death, the Resurrection, and the judgment day. But there is also Eternal Life that is with us through the gift of righteousness. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

As we minister to one another through the suffering of the pandemic–the suffering that passes all human understanding–we need to hold to Christ and to both affirmations. Though we die, we will live again through the Resurrection. And with Eternal Life, we will never die.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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