Jun 14, 2011

Paul the pragmatic steward



2 Cor 8: 1-9

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, of the grace of God
that has been given to the churches of Macedonia,
for in a severe test of affliction,
the abundance of their joy and their profound poverty
overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
For according to their means, I can testify,
and beyond their means, spontaneously,
hey begged us insistently for the favor of taking part
in the service to the holy ones,
and this, not as we expected,
but they gave themselves first to the Lord
and to us through the will of God,
so that we urged Titus that, as he had already begun,
he should also complete for you this gracious act also.
Now as you excel in every respect,
in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness,
and in the love we have for you,
may you excel in this gracious act also.
I say this not by way of command,
but to test the genuineness of your love
by your concern for others.
For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that for your sake he became poor although he was rich,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.

“Another second collection?” “I gave at the office.” “The check is in the mail.” “Call me later and I’ll reconsider.” “I can’t give to everybody who asks.”

We do indeed come up with many excuses when asked to donate money to a cause, to our parish, and to the larger Church of the local (Arch) diocese. Granted, some of them are valid reasons as in we can’t give to everybody who asks. Families have practical needs. Jobs are tight and tenuous in some cases. The present state of the economy is anything but secure. While it is true there is only so much money to go around and many worthwhile needs to be met, the example of the early Church of Macedonia in Tuesday’s first reading does give us reason to pause.

St. Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles is praising the Macedonian Christians who have suffered, “a severe test of affliction . . .” but “the abundance of their joy and their profound poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part . . .” Paul here is referring to the charity of the Christians in Macedonia in the face of their own poverty and suffering.

The cause? A collection for the needs of the mother Church in Jerusalem. The Christian community of Jerusalem was under great stress. Many of the early Christians were converts from Judaism, they had been thrown out of the Temple, forced to meet privately in their homes in order to break bread (Eucharist), no longer allowed to worship on the Jewish day of Sabbath (Saturday), and their material needs were many. So, Paul not only a charismatic preacher but a pragmatist knew well that as our parents may have said, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” So, where to turn? To the other Christian communities outside Jerusalem, hundreds of miles away, for assistance.

Paul organized a project of relief for Jerusalem among his own Church communities. Yes, even in ancient times there were “second collections” and “capital campaign appeals.” Present day Catholics, I find, are notoriously generous when it comes to specific causes such as disaster relief, parish building campaigns, youth ministry events, school fund raising auctions and those sorts of yearly fundraisers a part of every parish. Many Catholics know that everything costs so the ongoing needs of parish life must be sustained by the community that worships in a particular location. But, we are not alone and our Christian family beyond our personal address may need some help. Still, people are more skeptical about going beyond one’s “family.” Paul’s advice is timely.

The giving of the Macedonian’s is especially fruitful. They donate despite their own “affliction” and “profound poverty.” In fact Paul says with admiration, “they begged us insistently for the favor of taking part . . .” They have little and their own local needs are great but they see this not as a limitation or an excuse to not participate in the Jerusalem collection. They see it as an opportunity to live their faith! The rubber hit the road among these stellar Christians.

True Christian charity is an expression of the Church’s unity. It is not just a practical need that is being met by responsible Christians but an expression of faith and trust in a God who will provide. For Paul the prime example for Christian charity is that of Jesus himself: “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Do we really believe that God will provide if I give in the right spirit?

In this now Ordinary time of the Church’s liturgical season it may be good to check our level of faith and generosity.