First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 5

William Loader

Pentecost 5: 28 June  2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Here is an ideal text for preaching about financial stewardship. It is a helpful corrective against some of the desperate manipulations which have often been employed for the cause. Paul is not, here, arguing that God has done so much for us and we ought therefore to show our gratitude by our financial gifts ('and they ought to be big!!'). He is not waving the big stick of God's right to be worshipped with money. There is nothing about paying back God's generosity nor about secret rewards for divine investments such as our own personal prosperity in this life or the life beyond.

On the contrary Paul creates problems for translators by using some of his major theological terms, such as grace and fellowship, to describe his undertaking of fundraising. 8:7, for instance, urges the Corinthians to abound 'in grace' (eg. NRSV: 'in this generous undertaking'). For Paul the same grace (divine generosity) which embraces us in our failure and sin also generates action as we become companions of this grace. In other contexts he talks about love as the fruit of the Spirit. Generous financial giving does not belong to another department. It is part of the outworking of compassion, the fruit of the Spirit. The stewardship invitation is not about moral obligations to pay God back or even to express gratitude, but to engage with God in love in the world. That includes acts of love with our whole being (including our financial resources) for others. Elsewhere Paul talks of his collection for the poor among the saints in Judea. It is outwardly focused.

For Paul stewardship is not about cranking up gratitude to God (with lots of moral pressure and shaming), but about living a Christ-shaped life. Notice how he relates his appeal to the very heart of Christian faith: Christ's life (8:9). As those incorporated into the body of Christ, baptised into the river of his influence, we are, of course (it comes so naturally to Paul to think this way!), to see ourselves as living out the life of God we saw in Christ. Christian stewardship is an appeal to love - to join God's loving.

Depending upon the local culture, talking about money can be a sensitive issue. In the context of his relationship with the Corinthians it was a very sensitive issue for Paul. Some would come out of the woodwork and accuse him of profiting from his fundraising (see 2 Cor 12). There were huge sensitivities about both taking money and not taking it (see also 1 Corinthians 9). The latter was taken as an insult. If he wanted to avoid trouble, Paul should have avoided the subject altogether - we often do. But Paul had a holistic approach and was prepared to stick his neck out. Notice how he is trying to be quite forceful and confronting and at the same time trying avoid giving offence (8:8). He appeals to previous good intentions, which have obviously lapsed (8:10-12). He is treading a fine line.

Not all his rhetorical strategies will have worked. It is fascinating to observe the range. He begins the chapter by holding up the wonderful example of the Macedonians (8:1-6). They inspire the attempt to approach the Corinthians again. Perhaps Paul senses he may be on shaky grounds if it sounds as if it is simply his own initiative. The appeal to Titus' status and his friends in the remaining verses of the chapter serves a similar function. In 8:4 the word koinonia occurs (NRSV: 'ministry to the saints'); stewardship is really a form of communion (another meaning of koinonia)! That is what Paul is saying.

Paul would like to command (8:8), but knows he can't, although some of his hearers would be offended by his challenge to match it with others. For them the praise in 8:7 would be seen through. The argument from fairness in 8:13-15 is a fundamental appeal. Sharing resources is a matter of justice, quite apart from the issue of generous compassion. He is giving it a hard edge, as it sometimes needs - not least in our own international system.

The transition to chapter 9 is not smooth, making it almost sound like something from another occasion, but it continues another concern: Paul does not want egg on his face. He is not beyond appealing to the Corinthians not to bring shame on him - a big thing in the culture of the time. That chapter seems to try some of the more common ploys: reaping and sowing and making links between compassion and praise of God. It is likely that Paul's efforts failed at Corinth, because we find no representatives from Achaia on his journey to Jerusalem with the money (Acts 20:4).

There is indeed something wider which embraces Paul's fundraising endeavours. His deal with Peter and James which authorised him to present Christianity to the Gentiles included the obligation to make a monetary collection (Gal 2:9-10). At worst this was a kind of fee. This is certainly not how Paul saw it. He saw the collection of Gentile gifts for the poor in Judea as representing the bringing of the Gentiles to the holy city, so that in some sense his whole ministry was bound up with its success. His passion was to bring the Gentile world to God and he saw this symbolically represented in those ancient texts which envisaged the nations coming to Zion. So it included giving a particular direction to the generosity (the grace) which the Spirit generated. We often overlook the extent to which early Christianity grew from Israel's great vision of a gathering of the peoples and great feast of peace, even though our eucharistic celebration should be reminding us of this constantly because they find their ultimate rationale here. By extension this makes sense of the use of 'communion' here. For Paul the vision of reconciliation, justice and peace, embraces everything because it flows from the heart of God. Life in the here and now can be nothing other than participation (another meaning of koinonia) together in God's life - and that includes what we do with our money and our power.

Gospel: Pentecost 5: 28 June Mark 5:21-43

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