This Lent in our sermon series we’re taking a good look at the joy of generosity. It’s a fundamental part of God’s renovation project in our hearts: God is changing us from people who worship the false gods of money and possessions, into people who follow the example of Jesus and live generously. God is helping us to become people who, to use the words of Jesus, do not store up for themselves treasure on earth, but treasure in heaven, because where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. Our text for these five sermons is 2 Corinthians chapters 8 & 9, where Paul is urging his Corinthians friends to play their part in a fundraising project to help poor and destitute Christians in Jerusalem.
We started on the first Sunday of Lent by looking at Jesus as the greatest example of gospel generosity. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:9 ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’. ‘Generous act’ in Greek is ‘charis’, which is often translated as ‘grace’. Grace means unconditional love, and so as we follow the example of Jesus and give of our time, our talents, and our money, our giving will be unconditional, not dependent on the worthiness of the recipient. We also noted that there is a ‘downwardly mobile’ element to Christian giving; Jesus’ giving to us made him poorer, and so we should expect as Christians to have a lower standard of living than others who make the same income we do, because we are learning the joy of generosity.
Last week, the second Sunday of Lent, Susan helped us look at giving as a part of the balanced Christian life, of Christian commitment. Paul talks about his Christian friends in Macedonia who were poor themselves, but who were also very generous. The secret was their commitment to Christ: ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us’ (2 Corinthians 8:5). It’s our commitment to Christ that leads us to embrace generosity as a way of life; we know how much he has given for us, and in our gratitude we long to learn the same joy of generosity. Susan gave us a couple of concrete examples of how we could practice this, including a ‘Samaritan’s Purse’: a purse in which we keep all our spare quarters at the end of each day, and then use to support needs that come to our attention.
This week, the third Sunday in Lent, I want to draw your attention to another theme in these two chapters of 2 Corinthians: the theme of kingdom equality. Look with me at 2 Corinthians 8:13-15:
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’.
In other words, this passage tells us that it is God’s will that there be equality of wealth among his people.
Now this is a very challenging principle for us in the west, because we’ve gotten used to the idea that there will be enormous disparities of wealth between people in our own country, and between our own country and other countries. It’s a well-known fact that the gap between rich and poor is getting much, much wider. A few days ago in the Edmonton Journal there was an article suggesting that, over the last thirty years, the wealth of the richest section of our Canadian society has increased dramatically, but the wealth of the poorest has, in fact, gone backwards, when considered in terms of real buying power.
A report published by Oxfam last year claimed that the United Kingdom is rapidly returning to the levels of inequality that Charles Dickens wrote about in the nineteenth century. And in a 2012 report published by the Economic Policy Institute in the US, it is claimed that in 1962 the top 1% of Americans were 125 times richer than the average household income, but by 2012 that figure had gone up to 288 times richer. A 2002 article by Branco Milanovich of the World Bank claimed that ‘The top 10 percent of the US population has an aggregate income equal to the income of the poorest 43 percent of people in the world, or differently put, the total income of the richest 25 million Americans is equal to the total income of almost 2 billion people’.
So we’re very far from equality. And many people not only think that this is inevitable, but also that it’s a good thing. These folks think that most poor people are poor through their own fault; they’re lazy, or they live in countries where governments are corrupt, and so on. To try to do anything to address the issue of systemic inequality, to these folks, would be morally wrong and economically inefficient.
The Bible, however, takes a different view. The first five books of the Bible contain not only the stories of Noah and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses; they also contain the laws that God gave to guide the life of the people of Israel so that they would be a just and compassionate society. This legislation makes it very clear that God sees poverty as the responsibility of the whole community, and wants the whole community to do something about it. And a special case of this is the year of Jubilee, which we read about in Leviticus chapter twenty-five. Let me tell you about it.
The principle of Sabbath was enshrined throughout the Torah or Law of Israel. Every seven days there was to be a Sabbath Day, when no work was done. Every seven years you were to give the land a sabbatical by not planting any crops, but letting the field lie fallow so that the soil could replenish itself. But the year of Jubilee came on the 50th year, that is, after seven sevens of years.
In the year of Jubilee all land was to revert to its original owners. The Bible makes it clear that when the people first entered the Promised Land, land was distributed equally to every family in Israel, so everyone had enough and no one had too much. But God understood the way economies work, and also human greed and human weakness, and he knew that over time some people would be able to buy up more land, while others would lose their land. In this way, inequality would creep into the system. Therefore, at the year of Jubilee, all land was to revert to the families that originally owned it, and in this way equality would be restored.
Interestingly enough, although the Jewish historians faithfully recorded this law, there is no evidence in the history of Israel that the people actually followed it! But it is there, in Leviticus 25, in black and white, faithfully giving us God’s opinion on economic inequality between people.
Also in the year of Jubilee all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves set free. The Torah allowed Jewish people to keep slaves of other nations but frowned on the practice of Jewish people enslaving their fellow-Jews. Today we would of course want to go a lot further than that and overthrow any system of slavery. But the reality is that the most common reason ancient Israelites were sold into slavery was to pay off unpaid debts, and many of those debts were incurred for reasons beyond the control of the individuals concerned – things like crop failure, or loss of their land to foreign armies. So all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves set free, and all land returned to its original owners. That was God’s command to his people.
Many biblical scholars think that when Jesus preached his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, he was announcing just such a year of Jubilee:
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’…Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:18-19, 21).
According to these scholars, Jesus was starting a movement that would put into practice the year of Jubilee, a movement in which there would be no economic inequality, but all would share freely so that everyone had enough and no one had too much. It’s interesting to me that the early church in Jerusalem seems to have put this into practice quite literally: those who were rich gave their wealth to the church and it was distributed to those who were poor, so that all were equal.
In our passage from 2 Corinthians today Paul doesn’t refer to the year of Jubilee; he chooses another Old Testament example: the giving of the manna in the wilderness. In Exodus 16 we read that as the Israelites were wandering through the desert they complained to God that they had nothing to eat, and so God sent them bread from heaven, which they called ‘manna’, which sounds like the Hebrew words for ‘what is it?’ Each morning the manna would fall on the ground and the families were instructed to go out and gather it – an omer (or about two litres) for each person.
Now in practice people didn’t follow these rules exactly; some gathered more, some less. But then Exodus records that something mysterious happened:
‘The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed’. (Exodus 16:17-18).
So once again, in the provision in the desert, we find God intervening to make sure that there is equality between people.
It’s this principle of gospel equality that Paul is appealing to in our passage from 2 Corinthians today. Listen to it again, this time in the New Living Translation:
Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. As the Scriptures say, “Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough.”
So what Paul is doing is taking this biblical principle of equality and applying it to an international situation that presented itself to him. Remember, he was thinking particularly of inequalities between Christians. You Corinthians, he was saying, you’re quite well off. But while you enjoy luxuries, your fellow-Christians in Jerusalem can’t afford to put a roof over their heads and food on their tables. How is this God’s will? How is this justice and compassion? God’s will is that those who have a lot give to those who have only a little, so that the balance may be restored. And, Paul adds, remember that one day it may be your turn! At the moment you’re the rich ones being asked to give to help the poor; one day you may find yourself in unfortunate circumstances, making it necessary for you to ask for help from others.
So this is the principle of what I call ‘kingdom equality’. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. What would be involved in God’s answer to that prayer? If Paul is right, part of the answer would be that there would be financial equality among his people, and since the earth does not contain enough resources for everyone to live at the standard we in the west enjoy, what we are actually praying in this prayer is ‘Lord, will you please make us poorer than we are now, so that others may have the necessities of life’. Or, as we used to say when I was a new Christian, ‘Help us to live simply, so that others might simply live’.
Bono, the lead singer of U2, has an interesting take on this. He says, “Every week Christians get down on their knees and pray to God to help the poor. But I think that, in a sense, God is the one who is getting down on his knees and praying to us to help the poor!” After all, the Lord is not like Robin Hood; he doesn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor. He has bound himself to respect human free will. He is waiting for us to become a part of the answer to our prayers. He is waiting for our love to express itself in cheerful giving, and also in the adoption of a more responsible lifestyle. That’s the gospel principle of equality, that everyone should have enough and no one have too much. This week of Lent, let’s challenge ourselves to think seriously about this principle, and how we could more intentionally put it into practice in our lives.