Sharing the Wealth (2 Corinthians 8:13–15)
Paul reminds the Corinthians of the underlying principle behind the collection. “It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need” (2 Cor. 8:14). It is not that the Judean churches should experience relief to the detriment of the Gentile churches, but rather that there should be an appropriate balance between them. The believers were in need, and the Corinthian church was experiencing a measure of prosperity. The time might come when the tables would be turned, and then aid would flow in the other direction, “so that their abundance may be for your need” (2 Cor. 8:14).
Paul invokes two images to explain what he means. The first one, balance, is abstract, but in the ancient world, as now, it appeals to our sense that in the natural world and in society equilibrium leads to stability and health. The recipient benefits because the gift alleviates an abnormal lack. The giver benefits because the gift prevents acclimation to an unsustainable abundance. The second image is concrete and historical. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the ancient days when God gave the people of Israel manna to sustain themselves (Exod. 16:11–18). Though some gathered much and others comparatively little, when the daily ration was distributed, no one had either too little or too much.
The principle that the richer should give their wealth to the poorer to the degree that everyone’s resources are in “balance” is challenging to modern notions of individual self-reliance. Apparently, when Paul calls Christians “slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 5:4), he means that 100 percent of our wages and our wealth belong directly to God, and that God might want us to distribute them to others to the point that the income we keep for our personal use is in equal balance with theirs.
We must be careful, however, not to make simplistic applications to the structures of today’s world. A full discussion of this principle among Christians has become difficult because it gets caught up in the political debates about socialism and capitalism. The question in those debates is whether the state has the right—or duty—to compel the balance of wealth by taking from the richer and distributing to the poorer. This is a different matter from Paul’s situation, in which a group of churches asked their members to voluntarily give money for distribution by another church for the benefit of its poor members. In fact, Paul does not say anything at all about the state in this regard. As for himself, Paul says he has no plans to compel anyone. “I do not say this as a command” (2 Cor. 8:8), he tells us, nor is collection to be made “reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7).
Paul’s purpose is not to create a particular social system but to ask those who have money whether they are truly ready to put it at God’s service on behalf of the poor. “Show them the proof of your love and of our reason for boasting about you,” he implores (2 Cor. 8:24). Christians should engage in plenty of discussion about the best ways to alleviate poverty. Is it through giving alone, or investment, or something else, or some mix? What role do the structures of the church, business, government, and nonprofit organizations have? Which aspects of legal systems, infrastructure, education, culture, personal responsibility, stewardship, hard work, and other factors must be reformed or developed? Christians need to be on the forefront of developing not only generous but effective means of bringing poverty to an end.
But there can be no question about the pressing urgency of poverty and no reluctance to balance our use of money with the needs of others around the world. Paul’s forceful words show that those who enjoy superabundance cannot be complacent when so many people in the world suffer extreme poverty.
Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 590.
John Stott, The Grace of Giving: 10 Principles of Christian Giving, Lausanne Didasko Files (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), discusses giving in depth, based on his reading of 2 Corinthians 8–9.