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Paul on Almsgiving
We should read the eighth chapter and the ninth chapter right through; they really concern themselves with one subject. The Apostle Paul wants to carry a point, and it will be an education to us to watch how he does it. There never was a greater man. He had all qualities. In a sense, the Christian or religious mind found its consummation in Paul. It ought to be a lesson to you, young business men, and to you, leaders of society, to watch the Apostle cunningly, quickly, so that no action of his hand shall elude your vision that you may see how this master, this leader, carries his point. He is making the most difficult of all speeches; he is making an appeal for a collection. Few men can do that with any success. It ought to be deeply interesting to you, men of the marketplace, to see how Paul sets himself about this. We know his great intellect, his wonderful command of solemn and magnificent language; we know how he can wrestle with a solemn doctrine and a great problem; but how will he persuade these Corinthian curmudgeons to give him money? They had promised a year ago; for it was not a bad city for promising; other cities have followed suit with some energy; but the money was not forthcoming. Paul says, in effect, You began a year ago to get ready; I know your disposition is perfectly good, but now I think the time has come when you might perhaps complete your purpose, especially as some persons are coming over from Macedonia to whom we have been trumpeting your praises; we have said, What beautiful souls there are at Corinth! how willing to give and how willing to labour! and if it should happen that your collection is not ready when they come, where are we? I do not say, Where are ye? but, Where are we? you make us liars; you bring us under great suspicion; the Macedonians and others may turn round upon us and say, You boasted of these Corinthians; by their example you sought to stir our emulation: now where are they? Paul makes arrangements which the nineteenth century will understand: he proposes that the Corinthians should get ready listen "beforehand." That is the only way to get money for religion if you want it. He says, You had better pay in advance. These are terms that the nineteenth century partially understands. Whenever I observe in London that a new business place is opened upon the "new principle" I find that the "new principle" is to pay for the goods before you have taken them away. I am surprised that that should be a new principle. Let us watch this master-magician.
First of all, he shows what has been done by others, especially by the churches of Macedonia "How that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality." They were, then, a poor people; their country and the adjacent countries had suffered from three tremendous and most desolating wars. The taxation was intolerable; the people of Macedonia and Achaia had prayed Tiberius to be released from the government of the senate, and to be placed more immediately under the administration of the Emperor himself, and this was done, that they might in some degree mitigate the pressure of vexatious, harassing, and almost persecuting taxations. These people, so ground down in Græco-Roman citizen provinces, these were the people that astonished the Apostle by their simplicity, here translated "liberality," their sincerity, their oneness of mind and heart, about the needy people far away. But is it not always so? Who are the people who adopt children? Persons who have nine or ten of their own. Who are kindest to the poor? The poor. Who was that pastor in Brussels long ago, in an age almost romantic now, who, seeing a poor woman in great sorrow and suffering, took down his own bed to her, and himself took away the straw that he might lie upon it? He was a poor preacher, a poor Christian nobody. So we should call him, but his name is writ large in heaven; hardly was there gold enough in all that upper city to make the letters large enough and rich enough with which to build his name on the tablets of the skies. If you propose in a council meeting, composed of wealthy merchants and others, as I have done, not in London, that there should be an offering at every service, these wealthy merchants always say that the poor might feel it, and therefore they think it better that there should not be any arrangement of the kind. The poor never complain. It was the rich merchant who did not want to be troubled, this he saith not that he cared for the poor, but because to himself, as to all gluttons and self-indulgent persons, it would have been a vexation and a toil. Never will you find any trouble in this direction among the poor. All Christ's trouble is with the rich, greedy man. This had better be said, and better be understood.
This work had been done by men also who had strained themselves "For to their power I bear record, yea, and beyond their power they were willing of themselves." "Beyond their power" a man can always do something more, not in this particular direction, or that, but in some other direction; and the measure will always receive something more, it is so capacious; and yet we never can give all, and the moment we have done our most God begins to do his most. Who can overtake God? Do you know to whom you owe that great balance at the bank, you four-figured man? What does your "Cr." mean on your books, or your "Dr."? To whom are you indebted, to whom must you give the credit? It will all be taken away from you, beginning at the first figure, unless you realise in a very wise, sensible, and gracious way the Giver of your store. I shall have you at the door begging some day because you were rich and godless. Take care: riches make to themselves wings and flee away. Be on your guard: your wash-leather purse may have holes in it, and the gold may be leaking out. Who are the men who have made history, who have helped human life? The poor, the men who have strained themselves, who have gone beyond their power. Shall they be forgotten in the resurrection of the just? God is not unrighteous to forget their work of faith and labour of love. No man shall give a cup of cold water to a disciple in the name of Christ but shall receive a hundredfold all wine, intoxicating the heart, but not poisoning the blood.
It was done by persons, further, who asked to be honoured by being allowed to give "Praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift." We said, Can you do this? and they said, We can. We asked them to consider the whole case, and they said, We have done so. Where have you done it? On our knees. From what standpoint have you looked upon this case? From the Cross. These are the men that make life beautiful. The heathen had done some things in this way. When Alexander the Great accomplished the conquest of Persia people asked him where the treasure was which he had taken up, and he said, " In scriniis ," that is to say, In my chest, in my box. Being asked where his chests were, he pointed to the poor, "I have given all to the poor"; then, in modern phrase, What has Your Majesty kept for yourself? " Spent majorum el meliorum " hope of greater and better things. That was done by heathen paganism; that was done by a man that we lecture upon as a horrible character in history, from a merely blood-shedding point of view. He made the poor his treasurers; he lived in hope of greater and better things. Who can rival that? Except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of all scribes, Pharisees, moralists, financiers, and prudent men, you cannot see the kingdom of heaven. You can see some superstition, you can lay hold upon some religious prejudice, you can build a sect upon some disjointed text; but God's kingdom, all light, you cannot see.
How did they do all this? There must be some profound explanation of this heroic self-denial: how was it accomplished? The Apostle tells us. He says, they "first gave their own selves to the Lord"; then all minor gifts became easy. The great demand of the times is that men should give themselves to the Lord. Until a man has done that, he is toiling up a very steep hill, endeavouring to roll a very heavy stone before him; he can hardly move it, and every step he takes forward, he takes a step back. It is toilsome work to go where the heart has not been given. It is easy work to give where the heart leads. So we come to the deepest reply. This is no superficial answer. Many persons say, Remember the words of the Apostle Paul, "We seek not yours, but you"; then they think they have put an end to all appeals and made the matter remarkably simple; these are the expositors who ruin the genius of revelation. Consider the case: "We seek not yours, but you," knowing that when we have got you we have got yours. The "you" is inclusive, plural; it means the whole total man, body, soul, and estate. How often is that passage misinterpreted; how foolishly men have sought to weaken Christian appeals by quoting the Apostle, who says, "We seek not yours, but you." Paul had a leading solicitude; Paul was a masterbuilder; Paul was the chief of accountants. He knew what he was talking about. So long as we seek only "yours" we have to fight for it and argue about it and worry it out of the man; but when we have got the man himself, with all his love, the rest is easy. He who has seen the sun, makes nothing of looking upon a little candle: he who is in heaven looks down upon the earth, not up to it: he who has given his whole soul to Christ gives all that he has as a matter of gracious sequence. Until this is done we can make no progress. Do not say you have given yourselves to Christ, if you are keeping anything back from him. We do not want the things you are so ready to give; we want things you do not want to part with. There are many persons who are perfectly ready to give you any amount of good advice. The beggar appealed to the Cardinal for a penny, the Cardinal gave him his blessing; the beggar returned the blessing, saying, "If it had been worth a penny you would not have given it to me." These beggars can reason! The poor are not necessarily foolish. There is an education which comes of experience as well as an education which comes by intellectual drill. It is impossible for any man to be uneducated to-day; the friction of the time is such that he is bound to be sharpened and stimulated and made sagacious. Do not therefore imagine that we can escape true reasoning and true criticism; do not imagine that you can give your money and keep yourselves back. We do not want such money; no blessing comes with it: only he can give money who has given himself. "Given" is a large word, small in letters, but all-inclusive and all-compendious in utterance. Can a man give who does not feel it? He may part with the money, but has he given it? Where do we find that word "give" "God so loved the world, that he gave." He gave; then, if we search into that, we shall find the meaning of the word. What did he give? "his only begotten Son." Can a man who lives upon the interest of his interest give anything? He never knows the luxury of giving. He may give a tenth of what he has or even a fifth, but it is not giving in any Christian or sacrificial sense; it is being respectable or reputable, it is getting a place upon a glaring list, it is ostentation, but it is not piety. Only he gives who smarts, who feels, who gives out of his poverty, and beyond his poverty. We must cleanse all these abused words. We must not let the vessel of the Lord be used wantonly; these holy words are vessels of the sanctuary: they must not be taken away by felonious hands, nor must they be appropriated by cold hearts. A man who gives a sovereign when he ought to have given a thousand has given nothing. It is not giving; it is eluding, escaping, compromising, defrauding. He gives who gives blood.
The Apostle addresses himself to this critical and arduous task with some ability. Let us watch him once more. "Therefore," saith he, "as ye abound in everything" add this. Some medicines look bad. Paul puts a capsule over the pill that the Corinthians would not like to take. The capsule is not the medicine, but the capsule performs a useful office. Some little children have been persuaded to take medicine, because it was to be taken in treacle. A child will undergo a good deal for that luxury. We remember the days, when the doctor having prescribed that the medicine should be taken in jelly, we thought him wise and kind. How much jelly there is in this verse! "Therefore, as ye abound in every thing, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us...." Paul would not have a church nine-tenths good, he would have all the ten points: his logic is Therefore, as ye have done so much for your character, do not represent a broken policy; do not put up a pillar and forget the capital. "As ye abound in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence and in your love to us" a very subtle charm of the Greek tongue in which he wrote and spoke, the image being, as your love flows out of yourselves and comes upon us as upon its objects, therefore complete your character. Who would build a house, and forget to put the roof on? The rooms are spacious, the lights are towards the south, but there is no roof on the walls. How many roofless characters there are! How many persons there are who have seven points out of the ten! yea, some persons have nine points out of the ten: the Apostle comes to them and says, As you have health and strength and reason and education and good circumstances, now add this also; put in the one thing that is needful. Jesus Christ will not allow a man to escape upon a large balance of character. The young man made but a mouthful of the commandments; he said All these have I kept from my youth up quite familiar with every one of them; no one of them has any claim against me. Then said the Saviour, One thing thou lackest, add this also: go, sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor, and come. What if for want of the one thing we lose all the other things we have! Suppose a man had a great estate, but had no eyesight; therefore he has no landscape, no poetry, no opening and ever-brightening vision. Suppose a man should have a houseful of little children and be stone deaf, never hearing one of their voices, never hearing his own name, never hearing the prayer of a little child addressed to his own heart. Why, the man had better have his eyesight than have his estate; he had better have his hearing than never to listen to earth's richest, sweetest music. Do not therefore imagine that, if you have nine points out of the ten, the tenth will be regarded as a mere trifle. There are no trifles in character.
Does not the Apostle rest here? No, he advances, he recedes, he pleads like a special pleader; then he goes to the great fountain of motive and draws his impulses from the very centre of the universe. He says "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 be rich." You know that. Here, then, is no special pleader but a man who states his case like a merchant, argues it like an advocate of the finest capacity and quality, and seals it with the blood of the Cross.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29