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262

XX

THE GRACE OF LIBERALITY

"Moreover, brethren, we make known to you the grace of God which hath been given in the Churches of Macedonia; how that in much proof of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. For according to their power, I bear witness, yea and beyond their power, they gave of their own accord, beseeching us with much intreaty in regard of this grace and the fellowship in the ministering to the saints: and this, not as we had hoped, but first they gave their own selves to the Lord, and to us by the will of God. Insomuch that we exhorted Titus, that as he had made a beginning before, so he would also complete in you this grace also. But as ye abound in everything, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all earnestness, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also. I speak not by the way of commandment, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity also of your love. For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might become rich. And herein I give my judgment: for this is expedient for you, who were the first to make a beginning a year ago, not only to do, but also to will. But now complete the doing also; that as there was the readiness to will, so there may be the completion also out of your ability. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according as a man hath, not according as he hath not. For I say not this, that others may be eased, and ye distressed: but by equality; your abundance being a supply at this present time for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want; that there may be equality: as it is written, He that gathered much had nothing over; and he that gathered little had no lack."—2 Cor. viii. 1-15 (R.V.).

With the eighth chapter begins the second of the three great divisions of this Epistle. It is concerned exclusively with the collection which the Apostle263 was raising in all the Gentile Christian communities for the poor of the Mother Church at Jerusalem. This collection had great importance in his eyes, for various reasons: it was the fulfilment of his undertaking, to the original Apostles, to remember the poor (Gal. ii. 10); and it was a testimony to the saints in Palestine of the love of the Gentile brethren in Christ. The fact that Paul interested himself so much in this collection, destined as it was for Jerusalem, proves that he distinguished broadly between the primitive Church and its authorities on the one hand, and the Jewish emissaries whom he treats so unsparingly in chaps. x. and xi. on the other.

Money is usually a delicate topic to handle in the Church, and we may count ourselves happy in having two chapters from the pen of St. Paul in which he treats at large of a collection. We see the mind of Christ applied in them to a subject which is always with us, and sometimes embarrassing; and if there are traces here and there that embarrassment was felt even by the Apostle, they only show more clearly the wonderful wealth of thought and feeling which he could bring to bear on an ungrateful theme. Consider only the variety of lights in which he puts it, and all of them ideal. "Money," as such, has no character, and so he never mentions it. But he calls the thing which he wants a grace (χάρις), a service (διακονία), a communion in service (κοινωνία), a munificence (ἁδρότης), a blessing (εὐλογία), a manifestation of love. The whole resources of Christian imagination are spent in transfiguring, and lifting into a spiritual atmosphere, a subject on which even Christian men are apt to be materialistic. We do not need to be hypocritical when we speak about money in the Church; but264 both the charity and the business of the Church must be transacted as Christian, and not as secular, affairs.

Paul introduces the new topic with his usual felicity. He has got through some rough water in the first seven chapters, but ends with expressions of joy and satisfaction. When he goes on in the eighth chapter, it is in the same cheerful key. It is as though he said to the Corinthians: "You have made me very happy, and now I must tell you what a happy experience I have had in Macedonia. The grace of God has been poured out on the Churches, and they have given with incredible liberality to the collection for the Jewish poor. It so moved me that I begged Titus, who had already made some arrangements in connexion with this matter among you, to return and complete the work."

Speaking broadly, the Apostle invites the Corinthians to look at the subject through three media: (1) the example of the Macedonians; (2) the example of the Lord; and (3) the laws by which God estimates liberality.

(1) The liberality of the Macedonians is described as "the grace of God given in the Churches." This is the aspect of it which conditions every other; it is not the native growth of the soul, but a divine gift for which God is to be thanked. Praise Him when hearts are opened, and generosity shown; for it is His work. In Macedonia this grace was set off by the circumstances of the people. Their Christian character was put to the severe proof of a great affliction (see 1 Thess. ii. 14 f.); they were themselves in deep poverty; but their joy abounded nevertheless (1 Thess. i. 6), and joy and poverty together poured out a rich stream of265 liberality.6767   Ἁπλότης is literally simplicity or singleness of heart, the disposition which, when it gives, does so without arrière-pensée: in point of fact this is identical with the liberal or generous disposition. Cf. chap. ix. 11, 13; Rom. xii. 8; James i. 5. This may sound paradoxical, but paradox is normal here. Strange to say, it is not those to whom the Gospel comes easily, and on whom it imposes little, who are most generous in its cause. On the contrary, it is those who have suffered for it, those who have lost by it, who are as a rule most open-handed. Comfort makes men selfish, even though they are Christian; but if they are Christian, affliction, even to the spoiling of their goods, teaches them generosity. The first generation of Methodists in England—the men who in 1843 fought the good fight of the faith in Scotland—illustrate this law; in much proof of affliction, it might be said of them also, the abundance of their joy, and their deep poverty, abounded unto the riches of their liberality. Paul was almost embarrassed with the liberality of the Macedonians. When he looked at their poverty, he did not hope for much (ver. 5). He would not have felt justified in urging people who were themselves in such distress to do much for the relief of others. But they did not need urging: it was they who urged him. The Apostle's sentence breaks down as he tries to convey an adequate impression of their eagerness (ver. 4), and he has to leave off and begin again (ver. 5). To their power, he bears witness, yes and beyond their power, they gave of their own accord. They importuned him to bestow on them also the favour of sharing in this service to the saints. And when their request was granted, it was no paltry contribution that they made; they gave themselves to the Lord, to begin with, and to the Apostle,266 as His agent in the transaction, by the will of God. The last words resume, in effect, those with which St. Paul introduced this topic: it was God's doing, the working of His will on their wills, that the Macedonians behaved as they did. I cannot think the English version is right in the rendering: "And this, not as we had hoped, but first they gave their own selves to the Lord." This inevitably suggests that afterwards they gave something else—viz., their subscriptions. But this is a false contrast, and gives the word "first" (πρῶτον) a false emphasis, which it has not in the original. What St. Paul says is virtually this: "We expected little from people so poor, but by God's will they literally put themselves at the service of the Lord, in the first instance, and of us as His administrators. They said to us, to our amazement and joy, 'We are Christ's, and yours after Him, to command in this matter.'" This is one of the finest and most inspiring experiences that a Christian minister can have, and, God be thanked, it is none of the rarest. Many a man besides Paul has been startled and ashamed by the liberality of those from whom he would not have ventured to beg. Many a man has been importuned to take what he could not have dared to ask. It is a mistake to refuse such generosity, to decline it as too much; it gladdens God, and revives the heart of man. It is a mistake to deprive the poorest of the opportunity of offering this sacrifice of praise; it is the poorest in whom it has most munificence, and to whom it brings the deepest joy. Rather ought we to open our hearts to the impression of it, as to the working of God's grace, and rouse our own selfishness to do something not less worthy of Christ's love.

This was the application which St. Paul made of the267 generosity of the Macedonians. Under the impression of it he exhorted Titus, who on a previous occasion6868   Previous to his recent visit? So Schmiedel. Or simply = formerly? had made some preliminary arrangements about the matter in Corinth, to return thither and complete the work. He had other things also to complete, but "this grace" was to be specially included (καὶ τὴν χάριν ταύτην). Perhaps one may see a gentle irony in the tone of ver. 7. "Enough of argument," the Apostle says:6969   This, according to Hermann (quoted by Meyer), is often the force of ἀλλά, which is certainly a surprising word here. "let Christians distinguished as you are in every respect—in faith and eloquence and knowledge and all sorts of zeal, and in the love that comes from you and abides in us—see that they are distinguished in this grace also." It is a real character that is suggested here by way of contrast, but not exactly a lovely one: the man who abounds in spiritual interests, who is fervent, prayerful, affectionate, able to speak in the Church, but unable to part with money.

(2) This brings the Apostle to his second point, the example of the Lord. "I do not speak by way of commandment," he says, "in urging you to be liberal; I am only taking occasion, through the earnestness of others, to put the sincerity of your love to the proof. If you truly love the brethren you will not grudge to help them in their distress. The Macedonians, of course, are no law for you; and though it was from them I started, I do not need to urge their example; 'for ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might become rich.'" This is the one pattern that stands for ever before the eyes of268 Christian men, the fountain of an inspiration as strong and pure to-day as when Paul wrote these words.

Read simply, and by one who has the Christian creed in his mind, the words do not appear ambiguous. Christ was rich, they tell us; He became poor for our sakes, and by His poverty we become rich. If a commentary is needed, it is surely to be sought in the parallel passage Phil. ii. 5 ff. The rich Christ is the pre-existent One, in the form of God, in the glory which He had with the Father before the world was; He became poor when He became man. The poor men are those whose lot Christ came to share, and in consequence of that self-impoverishment of His they become heirs of a kingdom. It is not necessary, indeed it is utterly misleading, to ask curiously how Christ became poor, or what kind of experience it was for Him when He exchanged heaven for earth, and the form of God for the form of a servant. As Mr. Gore has well said, it is not the metaphysics of the Incarnation that St. Paul is concerned with, either here or in Philippians, but its ethics. We may never have a scientific key to it, but we have a moral key. If we do not comprehend its method, at least we comprehend its motive, and it is in its motive that the inspiration of it lies. We know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; and it comes home to our hearts when the Apostle says, "Let that mind—that moral temper—be in you which was also in Him." Ordinary charity is but the crumbs from the rich man's table; but if we catch Christ's spirit, it will carry us far beyond that. He was rich, and gave up all for our sakes; it is no less than poverty on His part which enriches us.

The older theologians, especially of the Lutheran Church, read this great text differently, and their opinion269 is not yet quite extinct. They referred ἐπτώχευσεν, not to Christ's entrance on the incarnate state, but to His existence in it;7070   Translating it, of course, "was poor," or "lived poor": which is not impossible in itself. they puzzled themselves to conceive of Him as rich and poor at the same time; and they quite took the point from St. Paul's exhortation by making ἐπτώχευσεν πλούσιος ὢν describe a combination, instead of an interchange, of states. It is a counsel of despair when a recent commentator (Heinrici), sympathising with this view, but yielding to the comparison of Phil. ii. 5 ff., tries to unite the two interpretations, and to make ἐπτώχευσεν cover both the coming to earth from heaven and the life in poverty on earth. No word can mean two different things at the same time: and in this daring attempt we may fairly see a final surrender of the orthodox Lutheran interpretation.

Some strange criticisms have been passed on this appeal to the Incarnation as a motive to liberality. It shows, Schmiedel says, Paul's contempt for the knowledge of Christ after the flesh, when the Incarnation is all he can adduce as a pattern for such a simply human thing as a charitable gift. The same contempt, then, we must presume, is shown in Philippians, when the same great pattern is held up to inspire Christians with lowly thoughts of themselves, and with consideration for others. It is shown, perhaps, again at the close of that magnificent chapter—the fifteenth in First Corinthians—where all the glory to be revealed when Christ transfigures His people is made a reason for the sober virtues of stedfastness and patience. The truth is rather that Paul knew from experience that the supreme motives are needed on the most ordinary occasions.270 He never appeals to incidents, not because he does not know them, or because he despises them, but because it is far more potent and effectual to appeal to Christ. His mind gravitates to the Incarnation, or the Cross, or the Heavenly Throne, because the power and virtue of the Redeemer are concentrated there. The spirit that wrought redemption, and that changes men into the image of the Lord—the spirit without which no Christian disposition, not even the most "simply human," can be produced—is felt there, if one may say so, in gathered intensity; and it is not the want of a concrete vision of Jesus such as Peter and John had, nor a scholastic insensibility to such living and love-compelling details as our first three Gospels furnish, that makes Paul have recourse thither; it is the instinct of the evangelist and pastor who knows that the hope of souls is to live in the presence of the very highest things. Of course Paul believed in the pre-existence and in the Incarnation. The writer quoted above does not, and naturally the appeal of the text is artificial and unimpressive to him. But may we not ask, in view of the simplicity, the unaffectedness, and the urgency with which St. Paul uses this appeal both here and in Philippians, whether his faith in the pre-existence can have had no more than the precarious speculative foundation which is given to it by so many who reconstruct his theology? "Christ, the perfect reconciler, must be the perfect revealer of God; God's purpose—that for which He made all things—must be seen in Him; but that for which God made all things must have existed (in the mind of God) before all things; therefore Christ is (ideally) from everlasting." This is the substance of many explanations of how St. Paul came by his Christology; but if this had been271 all, could St. Paul by any possibility have appealed thus naïvely to the Incarnation as a fact, and a fact which was one of the mainsprings of Christian morality?

(3) The Apostle pauses for a moment to urge his plea in the interest of the Corinthians themselves. He is not commanding, but giving his judgment: "this," he says, "is profitable for you, who began7171   The προ in προενήρξασθε seems to mean "before the Macedonians." a year ago, not only to do, but also to will.7272   The order of "do" and "will" is peculiar and has not been clearly explained. But now complete the doing also." Every one knows this situation, and its evils. A good work which has been set on foot with interest and spontaneity enough, but which has begun to drag, and is in danger of coming to nothing, is very demoralising. It enfeebles the conscience, and spoils the temper. It develops irresolution and incapacity, and it stands perpetually in the way of anything else that has to be done. Many a bright idea stumbles over it, and can get no further. It is not only worldly wisdom, but divine wisdom, which says: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." If it is the giving of money, the building of a church, the insuring of a life, complete the doing. To be always thinking about it, and always in an ineffective way busy about it, is not profitable for you.

It is in this connexion that the Apostle lays down the laws of Christian liberality. In these verses (11 to 15) there are three. (a) First, there must be readiness, or, as the Authorised Version puts it, a willing mind. What is given must be given freely; it must be a gracious offering, not a tax. This is fundamental. The law of the Old Testament is re-enacted in the New: "Of every man whose heart maketh him willing shall ye272 take the Lord's offering." What we spend in piety and charity is not tribute paid to a tyrant, but the response of gratitude to our Redeemer: and if it has not this character He does not want it. If there be first a willing mind, the rest is easy; if not, there is no need to go on. (b) The second law is, "according as a man has." Readiness is the acceptable thing, not this or that proof of it. If we cannot give much, then a ready mind makes even a little acceptable. Only let us remember this, that readiness always gives all that is in its power. The readiness of the poor widow in the Temple could only give two mites, but two mites were all her living; the readiness of the Macedonians was in the depths of poverty, but they gave themselves to the Lord. The widow's mites are an illustrious example of sacrifice, and this word of the Apostle contains a moving appeal for generosity; yet the two together have been profaned times innumerable to cloak the meanest selfishness. (c) The third law is reciprocity. Paul does not write that the Jews may be relieved and the Corinthians burdened, but on the principle of equality: at this crisis the superfluity of the Corinthians is to make up what is wanting to the Jews, and at some other the situation will be exactly reversed. Brotherhood cannot be one-sided; it must be mutual, and in the interchange of services equality is the result. This, as the quotation hints, answers to God's design in regard to worldly goods, as that design is indicated in the story of the manna: He that gathered much had no more than his neighbours, and he that gathered little had no less. To be selfish is not an infallible way of getting more than your share; you may cheat your neighbour by that policy, but you will not get the better of God. In all probability men are far more nearly on273 an equality, in respect of what their worldly possessions yield, than the rich in their pride, or the poor in their envious discontent, would readily believe; but where inequality is patent and painful—a glaring violation of the divine intention here suggested—there is a call for charity to redress the balance. Those who give to the poor are co-operating with God, and the more a community is Christianised, the more will that state be realised in which each has what he needs.


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