Toward A Fair Balance

images (4) I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with Paul. A fair reading of the entire corpus of Paul, well it leaves something to be desired from a woman’s standpoint. Later, when I learned that there is wide discrepancy between “authentic” Paul and non, he fared a bit better. The worst texts were probably not written by him at all.

It has been a truism that in talking with fundamentalists, it’s my experience that Paul is quoted about 4-1 in making any conservative point. I guess that stands to reason, since pseudo-Paul fits the conservative ticket much more than the liberal side of life.

However it does seem odd that the very people who “confess Jesus as their personal savior” so infrequently quote Jesus for how Christians should behave.

It almost makes one wonder if they somehow use the scriptures to substantiate personal opinions rather than “learn how to behave”.

Plenty of so-called Christians have offered me the following gems of pseudo-knowledge:

  1. Paul endorses the notion that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, negating the present government’s attempt to “give” people stuff rather than make them get a job.
  2. Paul of course echoes God in decrying homosexuality.
  3. Paul believed women should be seen and not heard.
  4. Paul believed women should be obedient to their husbands who are their natural betters.

When it comes to Jesus, they become more brazen. Jesus, they tell me, favored owning guns for self-defense, didn’t want the government involved in taking care of the poor, and didn’t believe in minimum wages.

In today’s reading, (2Cor 8: 7, 9, 13-15) Paul finds himself in a bit of a pickle. He literally begs the Corinthians to be generous. He has, it turns out, been exhorting the Macedonians to give generously by touting the largess of the Corinthians and vice versa. Macedonia has come through with great giving and Corinth so far has not.

Paul is concerned about the contribution to the Jerusalem “saints” for a couple of reasons. First, they are genuinely in need, and Paul recognizes that the hallmark of this new way of being requires serious attention to the problem of the poor. Second, the Gentiles that Paul “leads” are still quite suspect as far as the very Jewish Jerusalem church is concerned. Paul hopes a good contribution will do much to ease the tension between the two groups, and unify them in their common quest to spread the Gospel to all nations.

Paul says some interesting things. God, Paul claims, gives Christians the grace to give lovingly and generously. Using the Macedonians as an example, he explains that God gives to those who give generously, and their generosity is met with God’s largess to them. Further he points out that if they take care of Jerusalem’s needs now, in the future Jerusalem may well be in position to help them in their hour of need.

There should be a “fair balance” or equality between them, as he puts it.

“. . .[Y]our surplus at present may fill their deficit, and another time their surplus may fill your deficit.”

No simpler explanation need be given. You give when you can, and trust that if the tables become turned in the future, others may do the same for you. Or, as Jesus might have said, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Lest there be a doubt, Paul explains that God will make it so. Quoting Exodus wherein God provided manna to the complaining Israelites in the desert:

“No one who had collected more had too much, no one who collected less had t little.”

In other words, you human need not keep score. God will take care of that. Just do what you are called by God to do: take care of those in need.

Somehow that message seems lost to many Christians today.

Continuously I hear this from conservative Christians: I object to paying taxes for “handouts” to those who are too lazy to work. I was taught to work and to not expect stuff to be given to me, but rather earned. These folks are all about give me. Our government has taught them that. The bible tells me to give to the poor, and I do so. But I decide how much and for what. That is as it should be. I’m tired of supporting dead beats.

What follows is almost always a rendition of all the wonderful things this person has done for the poor. Each believes with their full being that they have purchased salvation by their acts, although they would deny this as a blasphemous negation of Luther’s main thrust of justification by faith alone. Yet they will, as proof, point out that Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” This they claim shows that government cannot solve the problem. What they don’t say is what they also believe–the poor are there to be the recipient of charity offered to secure one’s own salvation.

What kind of God is this?

Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians suggests a different arrangement. You give the very most you can, and let God take care of the rest. God makes sure that it’s all evened out in the end.

God it seems (along with Paul) is a Marxist.

Talk of “equality and fairness” are concepts unknown to a winner-take-all free market analysis. What is fair in such a system is that smarter and harder working people are supposed to gain while slackers sink. Of course it isn’t at all smartness or hard work that make the difference really. Luck and favorable opportunity count for as much if not more. But that doesn’t feed the scenario being offered.

The very point Paul makes is ignored by the conservative Christian who prefers to focus on interpretations that support their own needs and wants. This goes along with Susan B. Anthony’s remark:

“I distrust those who claim to know what God wants when it always so perfectly coincides with their own desires.”

Paul is very crafty in his explanation: Give exactly what you feel is appropriate, but remember God will make sure you are given all you need to give generously. In other words, the more you give, the more you prove that God is indeed actively supporting you. Who could ignore that incentive?

There is no reason at all theoretically why one cannot take as much satisfaction in the paying of taxes for equitable redistribution as to give personally. But theory pales in the face of our very human need to feel superior and to be noted. So we insist that somehow it’s better if I choose what and where to offer my alms. At least we do if we aren’t really about the help so much as we are being sure that we are duly credited publicly for our benevolence.

We must recall as well that Paul is exhorting Gentiles to be generous with those who are making their lives more difficult–Jerusalem Christians of Jewish descent, who are still not quite sure these Gentiles are properly God’s children without converting and adopting Jewish traditions and codes of behavior.

Paul recognized that we are called to give no matter how well we relate to the recipient. We could do well to emulate that notion in our own giving. None of us will necessarily agree with every program that seeks to improve the imbalance between rich and poor, but we can be mindful of Paul’s assurance that God will sort it all out and make it “fair.”

Don’t we have enough to deal with without taking on God’ job as well?

An Excellent read on the subject of charity: Treasure in Heaven

A Tale of Two Women

I confess that I am puzzled by the inclusion of 1Kings 17: 10-16 along with Mk 12: 38-44. They seem to be very different stories with very different lessons.

As you recall, in Kings, Elijah stops a woman gathering sticks and asks for a drink of water. She stops her work and begins to comply when he asks for bread as well.

She tells him she has only a bit of flour and a small portion of oil left, just enough for one more meal for her son and herself. After this, she expects to die from starvation.

Elijah tells her to bring him the cake anyway and then feed herself and her son, for the Lord will not let the flour be gone nor the oil. Indeed, neither went empty for an entire year.

In Mark, we have the famous story of the widow who enters the temple and gives her last two coins to the treasury while the rich give great amounts. Jesus reminds that she has given of all she had while they give only of their excess.

Both deal with the end of things. The end of the flour and oil, and the end of one’s entire savings. Both women would appear destitute. And indeed we do learn somewhat different lessons.

From the widow in Kings we learn that when we are near the end of our ability to soldier on, relief will come. We some how or from some one, receive the strength to go on. Just at the moment when we feel we cannot endure one second more, we find that we can. All of us have had occasion to marvel at someone who manages to keep going when things seem hopeless.

During the last few years we have witnessed countless people who have lost jobs, fallen behind on their mortgages and literally live hand to mouth each and every day. How often do they lament that they have no idea how they can pay this bill or find enough to purchase food next week? Yet they do, and they manage albeit in great difficulty. Until one day, one day, the new job comes or the bank finally agrees to a refinance. The dark days are over.

The widow in Kings reminds us that we must never give up hope and our faith that better days will come, that we can endure this present pain, that God continues to love and uphold us and we will, with God’s help, find a way.

In Mark, we have a woman who is voiceless in her society. She is the prey of the rich scribes and Pharisees for she has been taught that her first obligation is not to her own well-being, but to the Temple. She may well have given up the money for food that day. She shows us in her simple piety what true giving is all about.

The rich are proud of their foundations and their philanthropy. Many of us are proud of our service on Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen. Similarly we might be proud of the commitments we make to our churches, contributing to the fund that builds the new kitchen, or the new landscaping. We too, feel good when we drop our dollar in the kettles outside the stores at Christmas time.

But we are throwing our excess into the Temple kettle. We are almost never giving away that which will cause us great suffering or loss.

And the lesson is not that we should. An argument could be made that the widow in Mark is to be lamented that she would risk her very life in service to the Temple. Her first duty was to at least live so that she might guide others to a greater understanding of charity and love for her fellow beings. Similarly we should not give to the point where we become an unnecessary burden on society ourselves.

What we should learn from this teaching is that we should not think ourselves esteemed for our small acts. They should be not things to crow about but things that we do as often as we are able. If we cannot give greatly in funds, and even if we can, we should be looking for ways to serve those least among us with our time, and our compassion.

The widow in Mark should shame us as to our own lack of thinking when we casually make our offerings. She should shame us into remembering that our offerings are not just monetary but may come in many forms. We are resourceful, as the widow in Kings reminds us. God will help us if we call upon Him. We will find a way.

Amen.

 

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