2 Cor 9:6-11; Psalm 111/112; 1 Kings 17
As I contemplate our Epistle reading for this coming Sunday, I sit surrounded by reminders of God’s goodness to our family. As ex-patriot Canadians, we celebrate Thanksgiving early, and I enjoyed spending time with my grandchildren this week, singing (to the Godspell tune) “All Good Gifts Around Us” with several of them. Even our pup, Angus, enjoyed the scraps of turkey that fell from the table—after all, that is biblical! The room is decorated with gourds, leaves, pumpkins, and the icon of God the Son calling into existence the world from nothing. The physical beauty of the crisp fall, the creature-comfort of the hearth, the smell of pumpkin pie and stuffing, all remind us of God’s bounty, and how He has called us to enhance the many things He has given, using them for good. St. Augustine called it “using our goods to do good”.
The reading from 2 Corinthians 9:6-11 is all about how we can participate in the beneficence of the LORD. We need to remember, of course, that God can bless His creation, and does not need us. But it is His delight to call us as sub-creators, to call us as His ambassadors, to call us to show His character in this world. Here is the passage:
He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.
Some may have an allergic reaction to passages like this, because they have sat under heavily moralistic sermons on tithing. However, if we can simply cleanse our palates before we look carefully at this passage, we may see its deep beauty. Paul is speaking very practically, because he is in the process of gathering funds for the poor and tragedy-stricken Christians in Judea. Not only were many of them poor by birth, but they also had been through a natural disaster, and were undergoing the first glimmerings of persecution from their own countrymen and the Romans. Elsewhere, Paul reminds his Gentile converts that they owe a debt of gratitude to the believers in the Holy Land, because it was from them that the gospel originally was sent out. And so he helps them to think through how they may give in such a way that it shows the glory of God. And this is what makes the passage so beautiful and tender.
His words remind them of God Himself, who provides “every blessing in abundance,” and is never limited when we give things away to others. Recall that wonderful story in the Old Testament about the widow, who was on the verge of starvation with her son, and how she made food for the prophet Elijah out of the last of her oil and wheat, but it never gave out (1 Kings 17)! We may be finite, but He is not, and what He gives comes from a storehouse that never ends. This means that we both have what we need, AND have enough to give away generously. God’s math, so to speak, is not like ours: when we take from our hoarded resources, they are diminished. But, says St. Paul, “You will be enriched in every way for great generosity.”
In the midst of his instruction, Paul quotes one of the great “Alleluia!” Psalms of the OT, Psalm 111 (Hebrew 112). He says, “As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” And then Paul goes on to say, “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”
Now, from the context of Paul’s letter, we might be led to think that verse 9 of the psalm refers to God as the one who scatters, who gives, and whose righteousness endures. After all, Paul does go on to speak about God as the supplier of seed. But, when we look at the Psalm itself, we see that it is actually a eulogy, or psalm of praise, for the righteous human being. The entire Psalm speaks of the one who “fears the Lord,” going on to speak of the blessings that one receives, the light that shines on such a righteous family, the generosity and justice of that one, the trust exhibited even in times of trial, and the enduring righteousness seen there. Like Psalm 1, the Psalm begins “blessed is the man,” and so it can be understood as a description especially of Jesus, who, as St. Paul says, “became poor so that we might be rich.” But the Psalm has a long tradition of being read as applying to women as well as to men who are faithful. St. Augustine, for example, speaks about how it should be seen as descriptive of generous women (City of God 22:18), and St. Gregory of Nazianzus quoted this psalm as illustrative of his compassionate sister Georgiana, who constantly used her goods for those in need (Oration 8:12). Of Georgiana, St. Gregory tells us, “She snatched everything from the prince of this world, and she transferred it to safe storehouses.” He is, of course, referring to Jesus’ parable about the foolish rich man, who built many barns and lost them all when he died; instead, the parable says, we should store up things in heavenly storehouses, and so become rich towards God.
The psalm, then, is about the human being called to be righteous. It helps to notice that this Psalm is a companion to the previous one, Psalm 110/111, written in the same form, and the same length. That previous Psalm was about the generosity of the LORD Himself, gracious and merciful, the giver of food, the giver of land, the giver of redemption; it ends with that famous teaching, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Psalm 111 begins by speaking about the fear of the LORD, and goes on to show that the one who fears God will learn to be like Him, generous and giving in every way. So the “he” in Psalm 111 is the believer, but it is the believer seen as showing forth the likeness and image of our Maker. “He” is the righteous man, indeed, the righteous human being, mirroring— God’s action and character!
And so it is that St. Paul can refer to this Psalm, reminding us of the wonderful gift of God, that we might have eternal righteousness, and then go directly on to talk about God’s abundance towards us. We are being called by him to understand that already we participate, in this life, in the kingdom of God, and that we need not fear when we show the astonishing generosity of the King. As St. John the Golden-mouthed puts it, “That, after all, is what material wealth is like: the more it is given away, the more it remains, whereas if it is clung to and locked up in safe keeping, it destroys even the people who cling to it.” (Homilies on Genesis 30:7). Similarly, Clement of Alexandria calls attention to Paul’s teaching:
Of such people, Scripture says, “He has distributed, he has given to the poor; his justice remains forever.” Therefore, it is not he who possesses and retains his wealth who is wealthy but he who gives; it is giving, not receiving, that reveals the happy person. Generosity is a product of the soul; so, true wealth is in the soul. (Christ the Educator 3.6.65)
Notice, however, that St. Paul does not ask us to by-pass our wills or our reason. He begins this passage, after all, but saying, “Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” So, we are not being asked to march in lock-step with a particular standard as we see others doing, or to compare ourselves with others, or to do this simply because it is expected. Rather, God desires us to give our hearts, and not for HIS benefit—for He needs nothing, and owns the cattle on a thousand hills—but for our own. To be children after God’s own heart is to give willingly, cheerfully, not under duress. It is to have our hearts formed to be like His: and He did not spare His own Son, but willingly gave Him for us!
When I was a kid, I used to hear the gospel song “God has no hands but our hands to do His work today.” My father used to complain loudly, saying that the song was completely wrong: Jesus still has hands, and God can bless those whom He desires, not needing us in any way. My dad was right—but it is God’s deep pleasure to include us in His work, to call us “friends” and not servants. He used Ananias in the conversion of St. Paul, though Paul had seen a vision; He used St. Philip in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, even whisking the deacon across great spaces to sit with that inquirer on his chariot; He used St. Paul to gather material blessings for those suffering Christians in Judea. He uses people to write the Scriptures so that we can understand His will. He never by-passes who we are as human-beings, but by His Holy Spirit, urges us to use our wills and our minds to understand Him and to be open to His transforming power.
Some of that transformation occurs as we act with Him in generosity—we become more like Him as we do not give way to fear or anxiety, but help those in need. And, of course, we end up working together with other believers as we do this. Paul was inviting the Corinthians to join other Christians in helping out those in need. He ends up by saying that if they joined these others in cheerful giving, they would “be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” Here, the gift of the Corinthians is seen as leading to thanksgiving through the apostles. What does he mean? It would seem that, first of all, he means that when he passes on the gift to those in need, they will give thanks to God. But I think, too, St. Paul might mean that the gift of the Corinthians could lead to the general thanksgiving of the whole Church that was giving at that time. One generous act encourages all the others, leading to thanksgiving to God. We are encouraged by others, and actually behold the generosity of God as it shines in the faces of all whom the Holy Spirit is transforming.
So, then, to give cheerfully is a sign of our working together, and it increases thanksgiving. All this is a sign that we belong to God, and to each other, giving freely where there is need, and rejoicing when God softens the hearts of others to give. We might be reminded of St. Paul’s earlier words in this same epistle, where he pictures Christians beholding and reflecting the glory of the LORD as in a mirror, and so being transformed into the very image of God Himself (2 Cor 3:17-18). This is not simply a spiritual experience, something that happens in ecstasy, but something that happens in the daily calling of life, when we see those in need: “be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful.”