Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How Should We Then Give? Part 3: You're Not Gonna Like This

For many Americans, this has been a year of extreme discontent with several of President Obama’s policies. Between a proposed broadening of healthcare subsidies and other big-ticket ideas feeding a skyrocketing national debt, the catch-phrase among right-wing Republicans is the “redistribution of wealth”, meaning the rich will be taxed even more to pay for things the poor don’t have.

Such terminology may be more rhetoric than reality, and I’m not going to render a verdict here on Obama or his agenda. However, the redistribution of wealth scenario resonates with voters who fear for the security of their income, investment portfolio, and standard of living under the current administration. For many Americans, what wealth they possess they’ve earned, and they think the government is using their money to enable lazy people.

Well, if you’re one of those people fearful of wealth redistribution, you’re probably not going to like today’s blog. Because essentially, the apostle Paul believes wealthy believers should freely give of their resources to equal the balance between rich and poor brothers and sisters in Christ.

Read It Yourself

Wow. If you’re like me, that is a stunning idea to digest. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on this part of 2 Corinthians 8. I’ve done the Bible-in-a-year study twice, and I don’t remember reading this passage. As you will see, it’s so completely contrary to what we Americans have been brought up believing about economics and our faith that if you have studied this passage before, you’d remember it.

“I give my opinion in this matter, for this is to your advantage, who were the first to begin a year ago not only to do this, but also to desire to do it. But now, finish doing it also, so that just as there was the readiness to desire it, so there may be also the completion of it by your ability. For if the readiness is present, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.

“For this is not for the ease of others, and for your affliction, but by way of equality – at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality.

“As it is written, ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack’.” (this is a reference to Exodus 16:18, which describes how the Israelites measured out the manna so that everybody had enough)

- 2 Corinthians 8:10-15

The "E" Word
What is the one word that immediately catches your eye in this passage? “Equality”, of course!

What an odd, uncomfortable word “equality” can be. If we’re talking about voting rights and race relations, we all agree equality is good. However, when we use the term “equality” in an economic sense, suddenly social stratification takes center stage. We immediately become defensive.

To us Americans, financial "equality" smacks of socialism and communism, where hard workers have their earnings taken to support underachieving schmucks. We’ve been taught capitalism thrives on rewards – the harder one works, the more they should be paid. Worth is pegged directly to the degree of effort, sacrifice, skill, education, and tenacity that a person utilizes to achieve their goals. And we have a right to let this wealth accrue at our discretion, spending the money we’ve earned to support a lifestyle we think is within our budget.

Our Problem With Material Equality

Yes, we can take some comfort in the fact that the Bible never says capitalism, in and of itself, is wrong. Indeed, it’s Biblical to expect that a worker is due his wage (people should be paid what they’re worth), there were Godly people in the Bible who were entrepreneurial and wealthy, servants were rewarded for investing wisely, and financial abundance was one of the benefits of Israel’s stability. There’s nothing wrong with money; in fact, money has been one of the key tools God uses to advance His Kingdom.

It’s the “equality” part of this passage that throws us. We Americans scoff at the notion that everybody in our church should be on a similar economic level. We would howl if our church leadership even suggested that the wealthier members of the congregation fork over huge sums of money and material goods to the poorer members of the congregation to achieve a better material balance.

And the howls probably wouldn’t just come from the wealthy! Poor members of the congregation would probably protest, too – are we inferior because we’re poor? Are you saying we don’t work hard? We’re proud folk who chaff at charity. Besides, it’s easier to be humble when you live in poverty.

It’s In the Bible. What Do We Do With It?

You’ve read it. It’s in the Bible. I’m not making any of this up. Neither am I winning any popularity points here, am I?

But, what do we do with this? Do we just ignore it, and hope it goes away? Do we rationalize it away, figuring it’s only one story out of many (and ignore 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)? Do we conveniently forget that the Macedonians were poor to begin with – probably a lot poorer than any of us reading this over the Internet? How can we avoid this example for how God expects us to use the wealth He has distributed among His people?

Separation of Church and State?

Which brings us back to the phrase, "redistribution of wealth". I’m going out on a limb here – well, farther out on a limb – and suggest that today, our government is doing the social charity for which churches used to be responsible. Who did God say should take care of the elderly, the fatherless, the widows, and the poor? Why do we make the government do it today? Has maintaining a certain standard of living taken priority for believers over maintaining a balance of care within a community of faith? Are any of the welfare problems we face as a country today the result of the church’s abdication of our responsibilities?

Can we at least agree that today, our government has taken over the role of benefactor to the needy who the Christian church should be sustaining instead. Should the disenfranchised in our churches be on government welfare or disability, or should their faith community be sustaining them as necessary out of the group’s collective abundance?

I’m not talking about those on welfare who are not part of a community of faith. I’m not saying that people who contribute to the perpetuation of generational poverty should be fed and housed by churches (although, which is worse – being taxed to provide these needs, or giving of one’s own volition with an opportunity to better control how the money is spent?).

I believe many passages in Scripture admonish believers to work hard and diligently, provide for their families, and honor their employers. Within a faith community, these passages provide ample accountability for every able-bodied Christian. If believers in community fulfill their obligations for employment, then less wiggle room exists for those of a slothful disposition to expect freebies from the congregation.

However, there would still be occasions for the church to contribute to the needs of religious workers, missionaries, widows without a pension, abandoned children, single parents, infants rescued from abortion, elder care, the unemployed, families devastated by some disaster, people with disabilities, people with enormous medical expenses, and even worshippers in sister churches across the country or world facing severe economic challenges.

What Is God Telling Us?

Economic equality between believers. With joy and abundance. Pleading for opportunities to redistribute our own wealth.

That’s not me, but should it be? Should this principle be practiced in our churches today? Isn’t this part of the “New Testament Church” that many scholars and church growth experts herald as a model for Biblical community? Doesn’t it help put in context the passage from Luke 12:48, “to whom much is given, much is required”?

Is this much required of us, too?

2 comments:

  1. Note, Deut 15:4; and then read v. 5-7. See also, Acts 4:34-35. God's way of dealing with the needy amongst his people is through the generosity of those who have received much. 2 Cor 9:13-15 are intriguing indeed. It seems to me that Paul's emphasis is on reciprocity. Each gives what they have been given (v. 14). Interestingly, he appeals to the provision of manna in the wilderness (v. 15) where God miraculously ensured equality. But now, in the New Covenant ministry of the Spirit (Paul's emphasis in 2 Cor. 1-7)believers, as evidence of the Spirit's work in them, give generously on their own to meet the needs of the impoverished.

    It all comes down to what you said in your first post in this series. God is not opposed to private ownership or wealth; however, He certainly is very much opposed to hoarding of such property and wealth for one's own gain. When we are not generous in our giving we deny God's grace to us and deny ourselves the gracious privilege extended to us to be generous to those in need. Paul gives the motive and result of such generosity in the end of Ch.9, that thanksgiving may about to God.

    May I recommend a book called "Ain't too Proud to Beg" by Telford Work. In reading these posts I am convinced that you will very much enjoy reading that work. (Used copies are available on Amazon.com for $1.50).

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