…and finish what you started!
by Clint Schnekloth
Epistle Reading: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
For Sunday, July 1, 2012: Year B – Ordinary 13
This somewhat obscure passage from one of the more cryptic of Paul’s letters offers a real gem.
Excel in Being Loved.
Did you know that you can excel in other people’s love for you? Typically to excel indicates a quality or gift of the person who is excelling, but in this case the excellence is in what is received—to excel in being loved.
That thought alone is capable of startling a sleepy congregation out of their slumber come Sunday morning.
The Subtlety of Exhortation
Every preacher knows one of the more delicate balancing acts is how to encourage communities to do certain things without coming across as commanding or demanding (not to mention judging or condemning). It’s quite an art, this balance. Paul comports himself admirably here in support of a cause that is a deep part of his ministry (see, for example, his testimony in Acts 24 to the importance of the collection for the poor in Jerusalem in Paul’s overall ministry).
He first clarifies that he is not commanding anyone, but then says he is “testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” That’s a distinction with distinction. The basic challenge, “Excel at generosity!” now has narrative context. It’s not a command, per se—I’m just going to “shame” you into it. Are you really loving? Prove it!
Although this sounds like an emotionally manipulative strategy, it is an approach worth emulating in contemporary settings. Sometimes communities need a good challenge. Compare a community and their zeal, love, generosity to another community, and some of that competitive urge will come into play. Paul is illustrating that comparisons matter, including comparison to Jesus Christ himself and his generosity (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus as exemplar is at work in this text. Own it.
The Prod Continues
Psychologically, once many preachers have lofted a challenge like the preceding, they back up, soften it. Paul goes further in. He says, in essence, don’t just excel at generosity—finish what you started. These are words typical of coaches, personal trainers, and others whose profession is to challenge us upward and onward to specific goals—people paid to cause us pain. Paul is willing to cause discomfort, because he has a goal in mind only reachable through the redistribution and challenge necessary to achieve it.
Paul’s goal is for the community he is addressing to not only excel and challenge themselves at generosity, but also to keep at it, complete the giving they have been tasked with. You know you’ve arrived when you experience excellence at being loved!
He concludes with another comparison, an urge to consider reciprocity, mutual exchange, as a central ethical motif. Fair balance, yes, but in addition, your need is “for” someone else’s abundance, and your abundance is “for” someone else’s need. We might say that if you are rich, you are not rich for yourself, but for those who lack. Even more radically, if you are poor, you are poor for those who need to give.
The Hardest Question
It is unclear how sacrificial the giving to Jerusalem actually is (sacrificial, according to what one has, not onerous, giving what one doesn’t have), but it certainly is fair, slicing off the far ends of the wealth bell curve. Which begs the question: Is Paul merely condoning an early form of socialism, or is he saying something even more radical?
Clint Schnekloth is the Lead Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas. He has written extensively for Augsburg Fortress, including the Seasonal Essays for Sundays and Seasons and the baptismal resource Washed and Welcome. Clint blogs at http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com.