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Debie Thomas, Not Dead But Sleeping (2021); and Debie Thomas, When Daughters Go in Peace (2018) 

For Sunday June 30, 2024

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)


2 Samuel 1:1, 17–27 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:13–15; 2:23–24
Psalm 130 or Psalm 30 or Lamentations 3:23–33
2 Corinthians 8:7–15
Mark 5:21–43

This Week's Essay

2 Corinthians 8:7: See that you abound in this grace of giving.

A few weeks ago I read the marvelous memoir by the historian Peter Brown called Journeys of the Mind (Princeton, 2023). Brown is often credited with establishing the field of "late antiquity," that period of time from the fall of Rome until the beginning of the Middle Ages. His memoir reminded me of two of Brown's works that inform 2 Corinthians 8 for this week about the role of wealth in the life of faith. 

In his book Through the Eye of a Needle (Princeton, 2012), Brown debunks two common myths about faith and wealth in the early church. First, it's not true that most of the early believers were poor, what he calls "the primal poverty of the early Christians." Second, he also dismisses the idea that the conversion of Constantine unleashed massive contributions to the church by the mega-rich. He then suggests a fascinating and more subtle alternate history.

Enormous wealth did eventually pour into the church, but not until the late fourth century.  Until then, Brown credits what he calls the down-market "mediocres" or "in-betweeners" with being the church's biggest supporters. He calls them the "middling people" who were neither rich nor poor — artisans, small farmers, town clerics, tradesmen, and minor officials. These people were "the solid keel of the Christian congregations through the fifth century."

Brown's socio-economic scenario rings true with 2 Corinthians 8 for this week. Recall how in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul described the believers there: "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth." They were just very ordinary people.

In 2 Corinthians 8–9 Paul encourages these "middling-in-betweener" Corinthians to excel in "the grace of giving," and in particular to support a famine relief project to feed people in Jerusalem. Paul was repeating himself here. He had already addressed this matter in 1 Corinthians 16, where he had instructed them to set aside money each week for "your gift to Jerusalem."

 Lazarus and the Rich Man, illuminated mss., 11th-century Codex Aureus Echtermach.
Lazarus and the Rich Man, illuminated mss., 11th-century Codex Aureus Echtermach.

There's a remarkable role reversal here. It was the original Jewish disciples in Jerusalem who sold their possessions, shared equally with all who were in need, and organized a "daily distribution of food" to their widows. We read about this in Acts. Now, the Jews in Jerusalem were the needy ones, and it was the Gentiles in places like Corinth who supported them.

Famine relief flowed to Jerusalem from several far flung churches. In Acts 11, the believers in Antioch sent money to Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, who ruled from 41–54 AD. Ancient historians like Tacitus, Seutonius and Josephus describe the food shortages, crop failures, droughts, and bad harvests during his reign.

Paul also describes this "contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem" in Romans 15:26. And just like he does in writing to the Corinthians, he mentions the generosity of the churches in Macedonia — Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. Despite their "severe trials" and "extreme poverty," the Macedonians distinguished themselves with their "rich generosity" that was "even beyond their ability." Such were the ordinary Christians described by Brown as "the solid keel" of local congregations.

Three centuries later, the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (361–363), who vehemently opposed Christians and stripped them of their rights and privileges, acknowledged the generosity of Christians: "The godless Galileans feed not only their poor but ours."

It's remarkable to see how these early famine relief efforts were so highly organized, how sophisticated they were, and how they came to characterize Christians. In Brown's telling, this was due to the extraordinary generosity of the ordinary faithful — the people of Main Street, not Wall Street, the neither rich nor poor, the every day believers who helped other people who lived a thousand miles away in Jerusalem.

But times changed, and so did the relationship between faith and wealth. In a subsequent book called The Ransom of the Soul (Harvard, 2015), Brown turned from the role of wealth in this life to its connection with the soul in the afterlife

The title for this second book comes from Proverbs 13:8, "The ransom of the soul of a man is his wealth;" and the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:21 and Luke 12:33 about storing up treasure in heaven. Jesus seems to say that there's what Brown calls a "transfer" of earthly treasure to heaven through alms giving. In other words, there's a spiritual reward for financial generosity.

Christians helped the poor for many different reasons. There's no single, timeless "master narrative," says Brown. He documents the different ways that the early believers grappled with wealth — like the radical renunciation of wealth by the super rich, the "anti-wealth" of the ascetics, care of the poor, the generosity of ordinary believers, and, finally, the clerical stewardship of massive wealth that was accepted as God's providential gift.

In this second book, though, Brown focuses on one particular motive for giving to the poor. Eventually, and for many Christians, giving alms became a "purely expiatory action" for the forgiveness of sin. It was a way "to heal and protect one's soul." Material wealth and spiritual health were somehow deeply connected in the afterlife.

Brown readily admits that this quid pro quo, of giving in order to get, is an "acute embarrassment" to modern secular people in general, and is downright "abhorrent" to Protestants in particular. Nonetheless, that's our historical record.

Gary Anderson explores this same theme in his book called Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale, 2013). In his specifically Catholic view of things, he argues that alms giving is not just a utilitarian act of social justice to help the poor — Bill Gates does that. It's not just an ethical act done purely out of principled altruism with no element of self-interest or expectation of reward, as Kant suggested. It's not even just a sign of a believer's personal faith, as the Protestant Reformers would have argued.

Rather, for Anderson, a Catholic professor of Old Testament at Notre Dame, alms giving is a "merit-worthy" deed, and "the privileged way to serve God." In other words, there's a spiritual reward for financial generosity — the "ransom of the soul," to use Brown's quotation of Proverbs. God will repay the loans that we've made to him.

Fresco of Lazarus and the Rich Man at the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria.
Fresco of Lazarus and the Rich Man at the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria.

Taking the logic of this thinking to an extreme led to horrible abuses. By the sixteenth century, Johann Tetzel, Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany, was credited with the rhyme, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs." The original German is just as pithy: "Sobald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt, die Selle aus dem Fegfeuer springt."

The selling of indulgences — that is, purchasing the remission of your punishment in purgatory, made Luther's blood boil. Tetzel's ditty even made it into his Ninety-Five Theses (#27): "They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory."

On this point, I'm a good Lutheran. I'm opposed to Tetzel and his tribe. You can't pay your way into paradise. Heaven isn't for sale. Forgiveness is free.

But we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bath water. We shouldn't separate alms and the afterlife too quickly or completely. To borrow language from Brown, there must be some way in which heaven and earth, faith and wealth, are "joined by human agency." Simply put, our choices matter.

Jesus connected alms in this life with the soul in the afterlife in his Matthew 25 parable about separating the sheep and the goats based upon our care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the prisoner. And there's his parable about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.

Mother Teresa joined faith and wealth in a counter intuitive way. In her heavenly scenario, there's a grand role reversal — the poor are the benefactors and creditors, while the rich are the beneficiaries and debtors: "Only in heaven," she said, "will we learn how much we owe the poor for helping us to love God as we should."

For my money, that sounds about right.

Weekly Prayer

John Henry Newton (1725–1807)

The Happy Debtor

Ten thousand talents once I owed,
And nothing had to pay;
But Jesus freed me from the load,
And washed my debt away.
Yet since the Lord forgave my sin,
And blotted out my score;
Much more indebted I have been
Than ere I was before.
My guilt is canceled quite I know,
And satisfaction made;
But the vast debt of love I owe,
Can never be repaid.
The love I owe for sin forgiven,
For power to believe,
For present peace, and promised heaven,
No angel can conceive.
That love of thine! thou sinner's Friend
Witness thy bleeding heart!
My little all can ne'er extend
To pay a thousandth part.
Nay more, the poor returns I make
I first from thee obtain;
And 'tis of grace, that thou wilt take
Such poor returns again.
'Tis well — it shall my glory be
(Let who will boast their store)
In time, and to eternity,
To owe thee more and more.

Taken from Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson, editors, Before the Door of God; An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 425pp.

Dan Clendenin:

Image credits: (1, 2)

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