It must seem strange to mix faith and finance. I always recall listening to a live performance from U2, where Bono pauses during a song to level a criticism at TV evangelists: “Well the God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister!” And he’s right; God certainly has the power to accomplish his vision without the need of our resources. But to do so would be to exclude the radically relational nature of God’s kingdom, a kingdom in which we participate through our time, energy, and yes: money.
This Sunday we move from seeing our identity in Christ to seeing our responsibility as stewards and caretakers of his resources. We turn now to a letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians, Paul had been focusing on how to navigate the cultural weirdness of Corinth—sin city of the ancient world. In 2 Corinthians, his focus is on how we specifically do ministry in such an environment. Among the interweaving themes, we find Paul addressing the issue of collection for the poor (“the relief of saints”—v. 4). This collection would not only serve to benefit the poor, but also solidify support for the growing mission to reach non-Jews with the gospel of Jesus:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— 5 and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. 6 Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. 7 But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you[c]—see that you excel in this act of grace also.
8 I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. 10 And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. 11 So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. 12 For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. 13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-8)
In his commentary on the Corinthians letters, Ben Witherington of Asbury seminary observes the way such commands toward generosity go against the flow of ancient culture (and our own, for that matter). How so? Because in the ancient world, they believed strongly in the idea of “patronage”—where a person pays tribute to a higher official, and in exchange would receive blessing or an elevated social status. In other words, it was transactional. You give; you get. But here we find none of that—we find instead a new interweaving of social relationships.
The gospel is like that. No longer are we bound to laws of karma and reciprocity. We show and share love because our lives are patterned after Jesus. This grace-based economy is less concerned with the result and more focused on process. Rather than a purely vertical approach, the grace based system is an approach that reaches upward toward God and outward toward others. Rather than be preoccupied with advancement, it is saturated with humility.
Social analysts Christian Smith and Michael Emerson recently published a book called Passing the Plate, in which they analyzed the broad trends that contribute to a lack of giving. They highlighted six areas:
1) America’s culture of mass consumption
2) Pastors’ fear of discussing money
3) Ignorance of Christian teaching about financial giving
4) Mistrust for leadership or organizations
5) Lack of conversations about money among Christians
6) Failure to adopt routine methods for giving.
How does the gospel counter such trends? We can answer that by looking at some specific types of givers:
- The non-giver
Motivation: “It’s my money. Who are you to tell me what I should do with it?”
Gospel response: Everything we have belongs to God. The gospel redeems us from our allegiance to things and provokes us to use our resources to the furthering of His kingdom.
- The grudging giver
Motivation: “I give—when asked. I don’t really trust the church. I just do it because I know I’m obligated.”
Gospel response: The gospel transforms duty into delight and obligations into habits. If I see God as judge, I am condemned to a life of obligation and servitude—including my finances. But if I see God as my adoptive Father—motivated by love—then I am motivated by this same love and use my resources generously for the benefit of his kingdom.
- Services-rendered giver
Motivation: “I give because I take part in the life of the church. My kids are in the nursery, I take part in a Bible study—it seems I should give my fair share.”
Gospel response: Jesus never gave a fair share but gave far more—out of love. The gospel provokes us to generosity that transcends the normal boundaries of reciprocity and market value. The gospel prompts me to give unfairly, because my life is not motivated not by karma but by grace.
- The cheerful giver
Motivation: Nothing I have is mine. Every blessing I receive comes from God’s great treasure chest of grace. I give out of a genuine love for Christ and His church. Every dollar is a chance to see God’s Kingdom furthered.
All of us could do better at moving away from self and toward a radical new way of looking at our financial responsibilities. But this starts by looking at our inward motivations, and whether our responsibilities are shaped by the gospel, or shaped by our own ideas of supply and demand.