2 Corinthians 8:1-15
I’ll be up front with you. The Apostle Paul is wheedling money out of the good Christians in Corinth, and he’s doing it with sarcasm and shame. The Apostle was gifted in the arts of sarcasm and shame, and he knew when and how to use them to his advantage when he needed to get his point across. His most classic example of this gift is the Book of Philemon. That book is loaded with sarcasm and shame, and, if you were of a mind, you could read the whole thing during the offertory this morning.
I’m not exactly blessed with the gifts of sarcasm and shame, my gifts in the pulpit tend more toward encouragement and the like. But I sure do admire someone who can use the arts of sarcasm and shame as effectively as the Apostle Paul could.
It turns out that hard times had come upon the Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem. It was never easy, as we might imagine, for a Jewish person to convert to Christianity in the heart of the Jewish capitol of the world. It required not only an act of faith, but also of the will. To believe in Jesus in the city of Jerusalem was about as counter-cultural as it gets. It was worse, even, than believing in Jesus in Knox County. And because it is human nature to mistreat people who are different from us, and in this case, people who are guilty of heresy, the Christians living in Jerusalem had fallen into deep poverty. Many had lost their jobs and were unable to support their families.
And so, the Apostle Paul concocted a grand plan. He contacted all of the churches he had associations with, from Jerusalem, all the way over to Corinth, and said let’s take up a collection. Let’s be generous and gather up some money from all the churches and send that money to our impoverished brothers and sisters in Jerusalem to help them out in their time of need. And remarkably, just about all of the churches responded with great enthusiasm. Everyone thought it was a great idea, including the good folks in Corinth. But sometimes, what seems like a very good idea at first, can lose steam and fade away. Nobody really knows what happened in Corinth to that great idea of taking up a collection for the poor folks in Jerusalem, but in Corinth the idea never really got off the ground. Maybe they got busy with other things. Maybe they lost interest, or worse, maybe after thinking the whole thing over, they decided that the poor folks in Jerusalem ought to just try to get along on their own. Or maybe, as sometimes happens around here, there just wasn’t anybody available to head it up; Nobody who was willing to take charge, and so nothing happened.
But now nearly a year has gone by, and the Apostle Paul is still looking for the money that isn’t there, and so he resorts to shaming. He tells the Corinthians about the wonderful response that he got from the churches in the Macedonian region, and boy does he slather it on! He starts out by telling the folks in Corinth that God had given grace to the churches in Macedonia, so that even during a time of severe ordeal and affliction, they responded to Paul’s request with abundant joy. And the implication from Paul is, where is the grace in Corinth? Have you not received this same grace from God? Where is the evidence of that grace? And not just grace; that’s only the starting point. Paul says that the Macedonian’s abundant joy and their extreme poverty combined to produce an overflow of wealth and generosity on their part. That’s really rubbing it in. The folks in Macedonia were poor, and yet because of their understanding of God’s grace at work in their lives, and because of their abundant joy, they gave with generous hearts. Grace from God and abundant joy leads to generous giving. Where is your joy, asks Paul. Surely if the folks in Macedonia can rustle up some joy even in a time of severe ordeal and affliction, the folks in Corinth can do as well, where there is no ordeal and there is no affliction.
But Paul is not done with his shaming. He goes on. He talks about how the folks in Macedonia were so excited about this opportunity that they practically begged Paul for the privilege of participating in this ministry. Unlike, of course, the folks in Corinth who have, at best, lost interest in this whole thing. But there’s more shame! It turns out that the folks in Macedonia voluntarily, with emphasis on the voluntarily, gave not only according to their means, but beyond their means. They were generous to a fault. And to round out his shaming of the Corinthians, Paul says that the Macedonians gave themselves first to the Lord, and then they gave their money. The shameful implication is that this is where the folks in Corinth must begin. This is the pattern that they must follow. They must first give themselves to the Lord, and then come up with the money.
Finished with his shaming, the Apostle Paul then moves on to sarcasm. The folks in Corinth are rich in many things, and they are quite proud of their wealth. They are, of course, rich in money. Corinth was a wealthy gentile city situated on several major trade routes. If anyone was lacking money in that city it was because they were lazy. But the Corinthian Christians also fancied themselves that they were rich in faith. They thought of themselves as being super Christians. They’d had several fantastic preachers in their time, and they were quite impressed with themselves. What they had was an ego problem, and ego problems are never helpful. And Paul spent considerable time in his ministry trying to get them to tone down their egos, but mostly to no avail. And so in verse seven, he gets sarcastic. He says “You excel in everything–in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you…” You are rich in all of these things, and you know that you are rich in all of these things, and you take great pride in being rich in all of these things, but apparently you are not rich in generosity. Slam! The sarcasm is just dripping here.
And then Paul says, get busy with this collection. Get it underway. Now of course “I do not say this as a command,” that’s verse eight, “But I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” I can’t tell if that’s sarcasm or shame. Maybe it is both.
And then Paul drags Jesus into it. He reminds the folks at Corinth that Jesus, by his wonderful grace, chose to leave the unimaginable richness of a heavenly existence, and came to this earth as a mere human being. Compared to heaven, all of life on earth is extreme poverty. And yet Jesus came to this earth, taking on the form of human deprivation, so that he might give us the gift of eternal life in heaven. There is no greater gift, and it came from one who made himself self-deprived.
But, Paul says, continuing in his sarcasm, I don’t want any of you to be self-deprived, I don’t want any of you to be like those crazy Macedonians who gave well beyond their means; just give according to your means, “For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.”
Paul concludes his appeal by saying, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need…” This is the richest sarcasm of all. What does he mean, he does not want to put any pressure on them? He’s only been crushing them under the extreme weight of his shame and sarcasm.
And just so that they get it, he reminds them that in this changing and chance-filled world, that some day the fortunes might be reversed. There may come a day when the rich folks in Corinth need help from someone else. Better to give now, while the giving’s good. And then he quotes from Exodus chapter sixteen, verse eight. But he gives a rather rough translation. It’s from the story about how the Israelites gathered the Manna while they were in the wilderness, and here’s how it goes: “Those who gathered much had nothing left over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” In the wilderness, there was a greed problem, and some exercised their greed by gathering much more Manna than they needed. Human nature is human nature. But in this case, their greed didn’t help them much. The extra Manna bred worms and became useless. The lesson being, greed doesn’t help a soul.
So, take away all of the sarcasm and shame from this passage, and what have we got? It turns out that giving doesn’t have to be motivated by either shame or by sarcasm. What we’ve got is some really good advice on how we should give. Giving is first of all motivated by, and in response to, the grace that we have received from our Lord Jesus Christ. It all begins when we comprehend and experience the wonderful grace of Jesus. Giving then comes after we have first given ourselves to the Lord, recognizing that he has already given himself to us in ways that we can barely imagine.
And out of that awesome realization, our giving must always be motivated by an abundance of joy and with eagerness. And I would add that we do it out of thanksgiving for the incredible richness of God’s grace toward us. And then, generally, our giving is according to our means. But sometimes, like those crazy folks in Macedonia, it can also come out of our poverty. And that’s all I have to say about that.