Tuesday of Week 11 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:1-9

Paul now moves on to a very different topic, namely, the question of collecting funds to help poorer communities, especially that of Jerusalem.

We are told in the Acts that the church at Antioch in Syria sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem with material relief (Acts 11:27-30). Later, Paul organised a relief project for Jerusalem among the churches he had evangelised and founded. Chapters 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians contain what seem to be two letters about this. In them, Paul not only urges the churches to give help, but also lays out the deeper meaning of this exercise. It is both an act of charity and an expression of unity between the churches.

The first 24 verses of chapter 8 (of which we only read the first 9 today), form a letter of recommendation for Titus and two companions, who are not named. The letter is written from Macedonia (Thessalonica and Philippi, churches to which Paul addressed letters, were in Macedonia, a province lying north of Greece). The letter begins, as we see in today’s reading, with some ideas on sharing and equality in the Christian community. Paul’s ideas on relieving people in need had been planted when Paul was with the community in Philippi, but now he is expanding them to include help from several churches together to the mother church at Jerusalem.

In writing to the Corinthians, he presents them with the example of the Macedonians as a model of what ought to be happening in Corinth. In encouraging the Corinthians to be generous, he puts before them the extreme generosity of the churches in Macedonia.

We want you to know of the grace of God that has been given to the churches of Macedonia…

The central theme of his message is expressed by the Greek noun charis, which is usually translated as ‘grace’ but also by terms like ‘favour’, ‘gracious act’, ‘gracious favour’ etc.

‘Grace’ can be described as ‘the experience of being loved by God’ or ‘God’s love tangibly experienced’. It may come as a direct gift from God, or through another person or through some blessing which comes into my life. A closely related term is eu charis tia, normally translated as ‘thanksgiving’, that is, thanksgiving for the ‘graces’ received from God in so many ways but especially in the saving work of Jesus:

…for in a severe test of affliction, the abundance of their [i.e. the Macedonians] joy and their profound poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

Three key words appear in this sentence:

“Test” (dokime): suggests being tried and found genuine.

“Abundance”: a word containing the idea of overflowing and excelling.

“Generosity”: the word haplotes has nuances which include both simplicity and sincerity. Here it designates singleness of purpose that manifests itself in generous giving.

The Macedonians have asked Paul insistently that they wanted to offer what they could spare, and even more than they could afford, in order to express their solidarity with their Christian brothers and sisters who were worse off than themselves. Paul emphasises the spontaneity of the Macedonians and the nature of their action. In this they were showing a true Christian spirit, where the community’s resources are shared with those in need (the Corinthians do not seem to be quite so spontaneous and seem to need some pushing).

The idea that there should be rich churches and poor churches was unacceptable and contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.

They [the Macedonians] gave themselves first to the Lord and to us through the will of God.

On the deepest level their attitude is one of self-giving and solidarity with their brothers and sisters.

Through his colleague, Titus, who is in Corinth, Paul hopes that the Christians there will match the generosity of the Macedonians and even more.

We urged Titus that, as he had already begun, he should complete for you this gracious act also.

Apparently Paul had sent Titus to help with organising the collection.

The Corinthians are rich in many things, Paul tells them, perhaps with a taint of flattery, but he wants to emphasise that their wealth will not be complete until they are also rich in giving.

You have always the most of everything – of faith, of eloquence, of understanding, of keenness for any cause, and the biggest share of our affection – so we expect you to put the most into this work of mercy too.

He is not ordering them to give but, by giving the example of the Macedonians, is offering them a challenge and a test of the genuineness of their faith and love.

In the concluding verse of today’s reading, Paul offers the Corinthians the example of Jesus in a beautiful turn of phrase which we could do well to pray over today:

Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty.

There are scholars who think this is a reference to Jesus’ pre-existence with God (his ‘wealth’) and to his incarnation and death (his ‘poverty’), and they point to the similarity between this verse and the passage in the Letter to the Philippians:

Though he was in the form of God…he emptied himself…
(Phil 2:6-8)

Others interpret the wealth and poverty as succeeding phases of Jesus’ life on earth: his sense of intimacy with God and then the desolation and the feeling of abandonment by God in his death:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)

In either case, we think of the words of Isaiah:

By his wounds we are healed.

In our own time we may again reflect on the life of someone like St Teresa of Calcutta, who enriched many of us through her poverty and her freedom from any personal possessions.

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