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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Corinthians 16

 

 

Verses 1-24

Chapter 25

THE POOR

IN closing his letter to the Corinthians, Paul, as usual, explains his own movements, and adds a number of miscellaneous directions and salutations. These for the most part relate to matters of merely temporary interest, and call for no comment. Interest of a more permanent kind unfortunately attaches to the collection for the poor Christians of Jerusalem which Paul invites the Corinthians to make. Several causes had contributed to this poverty; and, among others, it is not improbable that the persecution promoted by Paul himself had an important place. Many Christians were driven from their homes, and many more must have lost their means of earning a livelihood. But it is likely that Paul was anxious to relieve this poverty, not so much because it had been partly caused by himself as because he saw in it an opportunity for bringing more closely together the two great parties in the Church. In his Epistle to the Galatians Paul tells us that the three leaders of the Jewish Christian Church-James, Peter, and John-when they had assured themselves that this new Apostle was trustworthy, gave him the right hand of fellowship, on the understanding that he should minister to the Gentiles, "only," he adds-"only they would that we should remember the poor, the same which I also was forward to do." Accordingly we find him seeking to interest the Gentile Churches in their Jewish brethren, and of such importance did he consider the relief that was to be sent to Jerusalem that he himself felt it an honour to be the bearer of it. He saw that no doctrinal explanations were likely to be so fruitful in kindly feeling and true unity as this simple expression of brotherly kindness.

In our own day poverty has assumed a much more serious aspect. It is not the poverty which results from accident, nor even that which results from wrongdoing or indolence, which presses for consideration. Such poverty could easily be met by individual charity or national institutions. But the poverty we are now confronted with is a poverty which necessarily results from the principle of competition which is the mainspring of all trade and business. It is the poverty which results from the constant effort of every man to secure custom by offering a cheaper article, and to secure employment by selling his labour at a cheaper rate than his neighbour. So overstocked is the labour market that the employer can name his, own terms. Where he wants one man, a hundred offer their services; and he who can live most cheaply secures the place. So that necessarily wages are pressed down by competition to the very lowest figure; and wherever any trade is not strong enough to combine and resist this constant pressure, the results are appalling. No slaves were ever so hunger bitten, no lives were ever more crushed under perpetual and hopeless toil, than are thousands of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen in our own time. It is the fact that in all our large cities there are thousands of persons who by working sixteen hours a day earn, only what suffices to maintain the most wretched existence. Every day hundreds of children are being born to a life of hopeless toil and misery, unrelieved by any of the comforts or joys of the well-to-do.

The most painful and alarming feature of this condition of things is, as everyone knows, that it seems the inevitable result of the principles on which our entire social fabric is built. Every invention, every new method of facilitating business, every contrivance or improvement in machinery, makes life more difficult to the mass of men. The very advances made by civilised nations in the rapid production of needful articles increase the breach between rich and poor, throwing larger resources into the hands of the few, but making the lot of the many still darker and more poverty stricken. Every year makes the darkness deeper, the distress more urgent. Here individual charity is unavailing. It is not the relief of one here or there that is needed; it is the alteration of a system of things which inevitably produces such results. Individual charity is here a mere mop in the face of the tide. What is wanted is not larger workhouses where the aged poor may be sheltered, but such a system as will enable the working man to provide for himself against old age. What is wanted is not that the charitable should eke out by voluntary contributions the earnings of the labouring classes, but that these earnings should be such as to amply cover all ordinary human wants. "Money given in aid of wages relieves the employer, not the employed; reduces wages, not misery." What is wanted is a social system which tends to bring within the reach of all the comforts and the joys of life which men legitimately desire, and which does not tend, as our present social system does, to overload a small number of men with more wealth than they need, or desire, or can use, while the millions are crushed with toil and pinched with semi-starvation. What the working classes at present demand is, not charity, but justice. They do not wish to seem to be indebted to others for support which they feel they have toiled for and earned. They require a social system, in which the honest toil of a lifetime will be sufficient to secure the toiler and his family from the dangers and degradation of utter poverty.

That a change is desirable no one who has spent two thoughts on the subject can doubt. The only question is, What change is desirable and possible? Is there any organisation or social system which could check the evils resulting from the present competitive system, and secure that everyone who is willing to work should be furnished with remunerative employment? Socialists are quite convinced that the whole problem would be solved were private capital to be converted into cooperative or public capital. Socialism demands that society shall be the only capitalist, and that all private captains of industry and capital be abolished. No return is possible to the state of things in which every man worked by himself with his own hands and at his own risk, producing his one or two webs, tilling his one or two acres. It is recognised that far more and better products can be produced where manufactures are carried on in large factories. But on the socialistic principle these factories must be owned, not by private capitalists, but by the State, or at any rate by cooperative societies of some kind. This is the essence of the demand of Socialism: that "whereas industry is at present carried on by private capitalists served by wage labour, it must in the future be conducted by associated or cooperating workmen jointly owning the means of production."

The difficulty in pronouncing judgment on such a demand arises from the fact that very few men indeed have sufficient imagination and sufficient knowledge of our complicated social system to be able to forecast the results of so great a change. In the present stage of human progress personal interest is undoubtedly one of the strongest incentives to industry, and to this motive the present system of competition appeals. And although socialists declare that their system would not exclude competition, it is difficult to see what field it would have or at what point it would find its opportunity. Certain departments of industry are already in the hands of the State or of cooperative societies, but the organisation of all industries and the management and remuneration of all labour demand a machinery so colossal that it is feared it would fall to pieces by its own weight. Still it is possible that ways and means of working a socialistic scheme may be devised; and it is quite certain that if any system could be devised which is really workable, and which should at once save us from the disastrous results of competition and yet evoke all the energy which competition evokes, that system would forthwith be adopted in every civilised country.

As yet, however, no such social system has been elaborated. General principles, ruling ideas, theories, paper plans, have been enunciated by the score; but, in point of fact, there is no system yet devised which appeals either to the common sense and instincts of the masses, or which stands the criticism of experts. And some of those who have given greatest attention to social subjects, and have made the greatest personal sacrifices in behalf of the poor and downtrodden, are inclined to believe that no such system can be devised, and that deliverance from the present wretched state of matters is to be found, not in compulsory enactment, nor even in the sudden adoption of a different social system, but in the application of Christian principles to the working of the present competitive system. That is to say, they believe that true progress here, as elsewhere, begins in character, not in outward organisation, or, as it has been put, that "the soul of improvement is the improvement of the soul." They consider that the present system rests on unchangeable laws of human nature, but that if men worked that system with consideration, unworldliness, and brotherly kindness, the present evil results would be avoided. Or they believe that it is at any rate useless to alter the present system violently by mere legislative enactment or by revolution, but that if it is to be altered, it can effectually, and permanently, and beneficially be so only under the pressure and at the dictation of an improved public opinion.

Appeal is confidently made to the mind of Christ by both parties, both by those who trust to the enforcement of a socialistic scheme, and by those who believe only in the social improvement which results from the improvement of the individual. By the one party it is confidently affirmed that were Jesus Christ now on earth He would be a communist, would aim at equalising all classes and at commuting private property into a public fund. Communism has been tried to some extent in the Church. In monastic societies private property is surrendered for the good of the community, and this practice professes to find its sanction in the communism of the primitive Church. But the account we have of that communism shows that it was neither compulsory nor permanent. It was not compulsory, for Peter reminds Ananias that his property was his own, and that even after he had sold it he was at liberty to do what he pleased with the proceeds. And it was not permanent nor universal, for here we find that Paul had to ask contributions for the relief of the poor Christians of Jerusalem; while we see that there were rich and poor in the same congregations, and that such duties as almsgiving and hospitality, which could not be practised without private means, were enjoined upon Christians. It is also obvious that many of the duties inculcated in the Epistles of Paul could not be discharged in a society in which all classes were levelled.

It is perhaps of more importance to observe that in probably the most critical period of the world’s history our Lord took no part in any political movement; nay, He counted it a temptation of the devil when He saw how much inducement there was to head some popular party and compete with kings or statesmen. He was no agitator, although He lived in an age abounding in abuses. And this limitation of His work was due to no superficial view of social movements nor to any mere shrinking from the rougher work of life, but to His perception that His own task was to touch what was deepest in man, and to lodge in human nature forces which ultimately would achieve all that was desirable. The cry of the poor against the oppressor was never louder than in His lifetime; slavery was universal: no country on earth enjoyed a free government. Yet our Lord most carefully abstained from following in the steps of a Judas the Gaulanite, and from intermeddling with social or State affairs. He came to found a kingdom, and that kingdom was to exist on earth, and was to be the ideal condition of mankind; but He trusted to move and mould society by regenerating the individual and by teaching men to seek in the first place not what "the Gentiles seek"-happy outward conditions-but the kingdom of God, the rule of God’s Spirit in the heart, and the righteousness that comes of that. It was by the regeneration of individuals society was to be regenerated. The leaven which contact with Him imparted to the individual would touch and purify the whole social fabric.

In any case the duty of individual Christians is plain. Whether needless and unjust poverty is to be relieved by social revolution or by the happier and surer, if slower, method of leavening society with the spirit of Christ, it is the part of every Christian man to inform himself of the state of his fellow citizens and to bring himself in some practically helpful way into connection with the wretchedness in the midst of which we are living. To shut our eyes to the squalor, and vice, and hopelessness which poverty too often brings, to seclude ourselves in our own comfortable homes and shut out all sounds and signs of misery, to "abhor the affliction of the afflicted," and practically to deny that it is better to visit the house of mourning than the house of feasting-this is simply to furnish proof that we know nothing of the spirit of Christ. We may find ourselves quite unable to rectify abuses on a large scale or to discern how poverty can be absolutely prevented, but we can do something to brighten some lives; we can consider those whose hard and bare lives make our comforts cheap; we can ask ourselves whether we are quite free from blood guiltiness in using articles which are cheap to us because wrung out of underpaid and starving hands. It is true that anything we can do may be but a scratching of the surface, the lifting of a bucketful out of an overflowing flood which should be stopped at the source; still we must do what we can, and all knowledge of social facts and kindly feeling and action towards the oppressed are helpful, and on the way to a final settlement of our social condition. Let every Christian give his conscience fair play, let him ask himself what Christ would do in his circumstances, and this final settlement will not be long postponed. But so long as selfishness rules, so long as the world of men is like a pit full of loathsome creatures, each struggling to the top over the heads and crushed bodies of the rest, no scheme will alter or even disguise our infamy.

The method of collecting which Paul recommends was in all probability that which he him: self practised. "Upon the first day of the week let everyone of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come." This verse has sometimes been quoted as evidence that the Christians met for worship on Sundays as we do. Manifestly it shows nothing of the kind. It is proof that the first day of the week had its significance, probably as the day of our Lord’s resurrection, possibly only for some trade reasons now unknown. It was expressly said that each was to lay up "by him"-that is, not in a public fund, but at home in his own purse-what he wished to give. But what is chiefly to be noticed is that Paul, who ordinarily is so free from preciseness and form, here enjoins the precise method in which, the collection might best be made. That is to say, he believed in methodical giving. He knew the value of steady accumulation. He laid it on each man’s conscience deliberately to say how much he would give. He wished no one to give in the dark. He did not carry out in the letter, even if he new the precept, "Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth." He knew how men seem to themselves to be giving much more than they are if they do not keep an exact account of what they give, how some men shrink from knowing definitely the proportion they give away. And therefore he presents it as a duty we have each to discharge to determine what proportion we can give away, and if God prospers us and increases our incomes, to what extent we should increase our personal expenditure and to what extent use for charitable objects the additional gain.

The Epistle concludes with an overflowing expression of affection from Paul and his friends to the Church of Corinth; but suddenly in the midst of this there occur the startling words, "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema." "Anathema" means accursed. What induced Paul to insert these words just here, it is difficult to see. He had taken the manuscript out of the hand of Sosthenes and written the Salutation with his own hand, and apparently still with his own hand adds this startling sentence. Probably his feeling was that all his lessons of charity and every other lesson he had been inculcating would be in vain without love to the Lord Jesus. All his own love for the Corinthians had sprung from this source; and he knew that their love for the Jews would prove hollow unless it too was animated by this same principle. They are serious words for us all-serious because our own hearts tell us they are just. If we do not love the Lord Jesus, what good thing can we love? If we do not love Him who is simply and only good, must there not be something accidental, superficial, unsafe, about our love for anything or anyone besides?

If we have not learned by loving Him to love all that is worthy, may we not justly fear that we are yet in danger of losing what life is meant to teach and to give? Trying to reach the truth about ourselves, do we find that we have attained to see and to love what is worthy? Can we say with something of Paul’s conviction and joy, "Maranatha"-"The Lord is at hand"? Is it the true stay of our spirit that Christ rules, and will in His own time reconcile all things by His own Spirit.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 16:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-corinthians-16.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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