Friday, June 29, 2012

Life Letters: Show Me the Money

Our texts for this week as we continue our journey with the apostle Paul are 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 and Mark 5:21-43.  You can read these here, and I would really encourage you to read all of 2 Corinthians 8-9 to get a bigger picture of what Paul is doing in this section of the letter.

I have very mixed feelings about this week's reading from 2 Corinthians, because in it Paul does something that pastors and churches often get criticized for doing too much of: asking for money.

It's a touchy subject, isn't it? When someone asks us for money, be it a telemarketer, the brownie selling Girl Scout cookies outside of the grocery store, or, yes, the people bearing the offering plates on Sunday mornings, we can quickly grow uneasy at best, defensive and hostile at worst. I think this is at least in part because we have so often felt shamed, manipulated, guilted, brow-beaten, and pressured by those seeking money--or have watched this happen to others, typically the most financially vulnerable among us--that now, even when someone asks us to support a cause we deeply believe in, we hesitate.  We wonder what the catch is, why this person is so interested in money.  Are they truly passionate about the thing they are fundraising for, or is there something in it for them?

This question must have been asked of Paul. One of the major goals of his mission among the Gentiles (other, of course, than helping them realize they have been embraced by Christ as full members of God's family) was to take up a collection to help the struggling church back in Jerusalem--that original community of Christ-following Jews who had come together after Pentecost and committed themselves to holding all things in common.  Now, due to a famine and persecution and perhaps even the strain of their radical economic practices, they had fallen on hard times. When Paul made his peace with the Jerusalem apostles, getting their blessing to continue his work ministering among non-Jews, they had “asked only that we would remember the poor, which was certainly something I was willing to do" (Galatians 2:9, 10 CEB).

Paul was more than willing; in fact, discussion of the collection for the Jerusalem poor occupies two whole chapters of real estate in this letter to the Corinthians. Paul tries all sorts of angles to help the people fulfill their commitment to support their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters, even as those Jerusalem churches had not always supported them. In these few verses alone, Paul appeals to flattery, competition with other churches, love, Christ's example, a reminder that they may need this kind of support in the future, and to God's provision. Paul is digging deep into his bag of tricks here, and my question is...why?  Why would Paul pull out all the stops like this for Christians who had not treated him all that well and who his Gentile churches likely never meet, nor be welcome among? What is so important about this collection for a distant church when undoubtedly there were many in need in their midst?

Why is this particular collection so central to Paul's teaching and mission? Read 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 and see what you think...and consider why, even if the subject makes us squirm, this might be a passage we still need to read today.

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