The Uniform Series text we are studying for Sunday, August 12 is 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, a portion of Paul’s fund-raising appeal to the Corinthians for “the collection for the saints” (1 Corinthians 16:1). Here are my notes on the text:
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: It sounds a lot like every other fund-raising letter! A little flattery, maybe (“you excel …”); invoking a good example, maybe even “guilting” people (“remember how much you owe to Jesus …”); reminding people of their shared values … it’s almost like a formula.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: 2 Corinthians, according to study Bibles and seminary professors, is edited together from several letters, and refers to a letter that has been lost. Most of the text deals with issues Paul was having with the church at Corinth, that had even led to some harsh or “severe” words. Chapters 8 & 9, however, focus specifically on the topic of taking up a collection for the church in Jerusalem. This probably explains why texts from these chapters appear regularly in churches today around “stewardship time.”
“the collection for the saints” in Jerusalem is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8 & 9, and Romans 15:25-27. If we are trying to reconstruct a timeline from the Biblical evidence, it seems to have been a later collection than the one mentioned in Acts 11:27-30, a response to the prediction of a “famine over all the world.” The reason for the collection might have been similar, however. Local food shortages were a recurrent phenomenon in the Roman world – a significantly urban world, with urban populations dependent on food supply lines, which could fail. (See Bruce W. Winter, “Acts and Food Shortages,” in David W.J. Gill and Conrad Gempf, eds., The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting Vol. II Graeco-Roman Setting, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994)
Although this kind of long-distance charity is commonplace today, in the ancient world it seems to have been an innovation. It would have been more typical for a community in trouble to turn to one of the wealthy members of the community for assistance. The “collection for the saints” seems to have appealed to everyone – though presumably those with more resources would have contributed more.
Paul has mentioned “the churches in Macedonia” at the beginning of chapter 8, as an example that might encourage the Corinthian collection effort: that is, the churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Beroea. [So, think Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians.]
CLOSER READING: “excel” is repeated in v7, for rhetorical effect; in Greek the verb often means “abounding” or “having more than enough of,” which would make an abundance of sense in this context.
There’s a text issue at the end of v7; versions differ on whether the Corinthians excel in Paul’s love for them or their love for Paul, or both.
The knowledge the Corinthians have more than enough of is gnosis, that immediate or inner or intuitive or intimate or special or practical kind of knowledge, as opposed to episteme, the more cerebral kind.
The “generous undertaking” is literally related to “grace” or “gracious”; it could as easily be called a “gracious undertaking.”
So it’s no surprise that Paul brings up the “gracious act” of Jesus Christ (v9). Christ’s example is of someone who “was rich and became poor.” This may be why Paul later emphasizes that he is not asking the Corinthians to become poor themselves, or to give what they don’t have (v12, v13).
[I don’t actually think Paul is trying to “guilt” his Corinthian readers here. Not that some readers might not feel that way. I think he is trying to hold Christ up as the ideal model, the “leader by example,” the embodiment of good values “the greatest of which is love,” and the goal we Christians are all aiming for. Big difference. It also serves as a reminder that the Corinthians really are rich.]
The “fair balance” (vv13-14) mentioned in the NRSV sounds a lot more like “equality” in Greek, using the word that gave us isosceles triangles (the ones with two equal sides) and isobars (those equal-pressure lines on weather maps) and all the other English words that start with iso- and mean equal-something.
Paul quotes Exodus 16:18 in v15, a reference to the Israelites gathering manna in the wilderness, according to the needs of their families, “an omer to a person.” This could serve to remind the Corinthians (and us) that whatever they are contributing to the collection for the saints originally came from God in the first place; and that the collection itself can be seen as akin to God’s provision of manna, too – that is, as a way of being a vehicle for God’s blessings, in the way the natural world is a vehicle for those blessings.
It might be significant that there are a lot of nouns in vv12-14; our writing teachers would be pulling out the red pens here on account of the passive voice. It’s as if there’s a shift in the prose, that signals a description of a state of affairs, rather than an exhortation to “do something.” Everything is settled down and levelled off.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: It seems to me that there are “political implications” in this text. There is a whole way of life, individual and social, embedded in this discourse – the idea of the collection in the first place, the examples Paul uses, the vision of a community it expresses. Not all positions about how we ought to divide things up in the world are iso-consistent with it.