Are we to be generous only when we have a surplus, or all the time? Do we – you – live in a time, and a context of abundance to share, or scarcity to horde and protect? This existential choice we face today is also at the heart of Paul’s pastoral advice in what we call 2 Corinthians. [Some further biblically rooted thoughts on this opposition of the Liturgy of Abundance and the Myth of Scarcity is written by Dr. Walter Brueggemann. Read it HERE.]
The world in which Paul lived and taught was comprised of a complex variety of social relationships that required reciprocity, some between social equals and some between person of different social status. There were mostly called friendship, even though most of these “friendships” involved some transfer of goods, services, funds, or other material benefits in one direction and of honor, praise, votes and influence in the other direction. In a society were banks did not loan money and in which there was not in most places an adequate social safety net, personal patronage was a practical necessity. The recipient of patronage was placed in an inferior role in the relationship and was obligated to respond with expressions of gratitude, praise and honor to the superior giver. In theory they were voluntary relationships, but in practice social inferiors often had no choice but to engage in patronage in order to make ends meet. Accepting patronage could sentence one to an inferior client status, in which one might be trapped in an inescapable series of obligations. But to refuse patronage, wasn’t any easier for it could incur the burden of enmity. Patronage was about economic and social power, and also motivated by honor and shame.
Paul is concerned about this relationship of dependency and reciprocity. We know that there was some tension between the ekklesia/church community of Corinth and Paul because Paul had not accepted their patronage, working as a tent-maker to meet his own physical needs. So while Paul refused to be placed in an inferior hierarchical position to the disciples he was teaching, and saw as his spiritual children; his desire to be on equal footing led to enmity, relational problems and mistrust.
In today’s scripture Paul is referring specifically to the invitation he gives to the ekklesia in Corinth to contribute to the mission project close to his heart: supporting the widows and orphans in Jerusalem. We hear this throughout the epistles letter, in particular in Romans 15. But Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to think that the Jerusalemites “owe” them for their solidarity and generosity. Rather he suggests that such a missional relationship of giving and receiving goes both ways, in the future it could be the Jerusalemites who in turn help the Corinthians from their surplus. Paul’s goal is to bind two very different parts of the ekklesia together, and to provide evidence to the Jerusalem assembly of the legitimacy, value, and compassion of his ministry largely to the Gentiles.”- taken largely from Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth.
Questions for Reflection:
- When have you felt trapped in a relationship or patronage, or quid-pro-quo, in which you’ve taken a gift that you seem never able to pay off or back?
- How do you experience the gift of God’s love which paradoxically makes you rich and then invites you to become poor like Christ ?
- How are you in need of “seeing” God’s love in Christ for you, our ekklesia, or the world today?
- How might God be calling you to make Christ’s love visible in how you choose to actively love others?