Friday, June 29, 2012

Economics of Salvation

Asking someone for money can often make for an awkward situation.  Most of us probably wouldn't even try it unless we were already fairly confident that our request would be met favorably.  We certainly wouldn't ask someone who was already questioning our trustworthiness. 

But the apostle Paul would.  His relationship with the Corinthian church was already a troubled one but in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul adds to the complexity of that relationship by asking the Corinthians for money.  Of course, the money is not for Paul himself.  It is part of a larger offering; one that Paul is organizing among all of his gentile congregations for the saints in Jerusalem. And it is an offering for which the Corinthians have already started collecting.  Nevertheless, Paul knows that he must walk a fine rhetorical line if he is to simultaneously mend his relationship with the Corinthians while also urging them to give to this offering which is such a vital piece of his own ministry.  Paul uses a number of different tactics to encourage the Corinthians toward this end as he toes that line. 

His first strategy is to let the Corinthians know how graciously other churches have given toward this cause -even beyond their means, Paul says.  Surely, the Corinthians who "excel in everything" do not want to be left behind when it comes to giving.  But Paul also knows that his authority in this community is a little shaky at the moment.  So Paul says in v.8 that he is not commanding the Corinthians to give but is simply giving them an opportunity to prove their love for others.  He then reminds the Corinthians of the grace they themselves have experienced in Jesus Christ.  Paul even expresses this salvation in economic terminology saying "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."  Paul is calling upon the Corinthians to share their wealth with those who are poor precisely because Christ shared his wealth with the impoverished Corinthians in order to make them rich. 

Obviously, Paul has no problem moving directly from spiritual reality to financial reality.  In fact, even making that distinction in the first place may say more about the holes in our understanding of the gospel than anything.  Particularly insightful is what Paul says in v.13-15:

"For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, 'Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.'"

"Fairness" or "equality" seem to be central to Paul's economic vision for the Church.  Of course, fairness can be understood in a number of different ways.  Often,  as Americans, we think of fairness in terms of what we have "worked for" or "earned".  Alongside those values we might also speak of "equal opportunity" so that equality exists when everyone who is willing to work hard has the same opportunity to earn a living.  Paul even seems to endorse those ideas to some degree when he says in 2 Thessalonians "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."  But we must also weigh those words of Paul with these in 2 Corinthians where "fairness" seems to be more about need than work or anything else.  Paul's argument is quite simply that the Corinthians have more than they need and those in Jerusalem have less than they need and that alone should be enough reason for the Corinthians to give generously.  There is no rebuking the wealthy simply for being wealthy and there is also no blaming the poor for their poverty.  Instead, the primary question seems to be "Are everyone's needs being met?"

Paul reinforces this point by quoting Exodus 16:18.  God provided manna for the Israelites in the wilderness when they had no other food.  God also instructed them to gather only what their families needed for that day; no more, no less.  The Israelites always had to trust that God would provide again the next day.  As long as they gathered only what they needed, no one was hungry.  But if anyone tried to gather extra then "it bred worms and stank."

It is no wonder that Paul thought of this story as he sought to persuade the Corinthians to contribute to this offering for it provides a poignant picture of the economics of salvation: a recognition that it is God who provides for us and not ourselves (no matter how hard we work), trusting that God will continue to provide, resisting the temptation to take more than we need, and everyone's need being met.  These beliefs and practices form the core of our economics as we participate in the economy of salvation. 

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