We are so used to passing the collection plate in church that we easily overlook the importance of the collection Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15 and elsewhere. The emotion and enthusiasm that gushes from Paul’s pen tells us that the collection was of the upmost importance to him. It behooves us to consider how important it was.
Many times, Paul speaks about the joy of giving, not only with money (which Paul had in short supply) but in time and energy and concern for others. It is Paul who passed on Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) while exhorting the Ephesians to help the weak through hard work. This concern for the weak in Jerusalem is one of the factors that inspired the collection. The joy Paul would have us take in giving is accentuated when we consider that Paul’s word for giving generously and joyfully is hilaritas. That is, we should give with hilarity.
Paul shamelessly spurs the Corinthians on to a bit of competitive generosity by boasting of how the Macedonians gave even beyond their means while urgently pleading “for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people” (1 Cor. 8:5). Competition has its problems but I don’t think Paul is holding a contest for who could give the most to the collection. Rather, Paul is holding up the Macedonians as an example to follow, hoping that their enthusiasm will inspire a like enthusiasm in Corinth. What Paul is urging is a chain reaction of generosity that will spread throughout the churches.
Paul emphasizes the importance of sharing out of abundance, or at least having enough for sustenance, with the hope that such generosity might be reciprocated if the roles were reversed. This is what Paul is getting at in advocating “equality.” In a helpful online article, Sam Marsh suggests that the reason this equality is important to Paul is because he does not want to set up anything resembling a patron-client relationship between the Gentile churches and Jerusalem. The Roman institution of patronage is one of many ways power remained entrenched with those who already had it. Paul is envisioning something very different: a matrix of mutual giving where there is need where everybody takes turns in giving and receiving.
The unity of the church also emerges as a principal motivation for the collection. When Paul met with the elders in Jerusalem, as reported in Galatians 2, Paul said he was admonished to remember their poor, which he very much wanted to do. The debate over admitting Gentiles without circumcision was decided Paul’s favor but later correspondence shows much lingering tension over the issue. If the Gentiles of Macedonia, Ephesus and Corinth should send what money they can spare to Jerusalem, it would be a powerful sign of fellowship uniting one church in Christ. Paul’s making sure that representatives other churches accompany him to Jerusalem is another indications of mistrust of Paul in the church of Jerusalem.
Most important is the Christological dimension to the collection. Contributing with enthusiastic hilarity is modeled on Jesus who though he was rich, for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty could become rich (1 Cor. 8: 9). This verse has been enshrined in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in one of the collects for saints who followed the religious life. We can’t help but recall the famous verse in Philippians where Christ humbled himself to enter the human condition and suffer the same vulnerabilities, including death, which humans suffer from. This is a far cry from the billionaire who writes a few tax-deductible charity donations from the comfort of his or her mansion. We can’t compete with Christ in generosity but we can at least empty ourselves of what we do have for the sake of others.
Given the eschatological overtones of Paul’s hope for union of Jew and Gentile, this collection may well have had eschatological significance for Paul, not in an otherworldly way, but as a seismic shift in human culture. The Jewish prophets exhorted the rich to give alms to the poor, but this is the first instance in human history that I can think of where a collection of money was taken up for the relief of those in need. Paul started something momentous. It is up for us to finish the job.