V. Rev. Fr. Nicholas Apostola
Pastor, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church
Following the Feast of the Precious Cross, we begin a new cycle of Scriptural readings in our Sunday Worship. The Gospel lessons are taken from St. Luke and the Epistle readings from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. The Ecclesiastical Year begins in September (as does the Jewish New Year), and in so many ways September is a more appropriate time for new beginnings than the icy days of January. Those with children start the new school year. The crisp days of fall invigorate us for hard work after the lazy days of summer. So, we begin anew studying God’s saving words for us.
Today’s reading is 2 Corinthians 9:6-11. St. Paul is writing to the Corinthians to inspire them to contribute to the fund he is raising from the newly formed Gentile Churches. The purpose is to offer a gift to the needy brothers and sisters in Jerusalem and all of Palestine. The Holy Land was never a very wealthy place. During the time of St. Paul’s missions a great famine had broken out over the whole region. Everyone there was in great need. St. Paul saw a gift from these newly formed communities to the brethren there as a way to tighten the bond between Christian believers, especially between Jewish and Gentile Christians. This is the background for today’s reading.
Even though his words were written with very specific intention, St. Paul has left generations of Christians a number of important guidelines to live by when considering giving and generosity. This section begins, “The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (v. 6) The first thing we should notice is that he uses an agricultural (organic) image, not a monetary one. He speaks of sowing and reaping, not of investing and return on investment, although this is implied. He wants us first to enter into the relationship of the farmer with the land, and then the farmer, his land, and God (that is, the rhythm of nature and weather). In many ways it is not unlike the calculation an investor makes in a start-up company or the market. But as anyone who has planted a crop (even a backyard garden) knows, the variables of nature are much harder to predict than those of the marketplace. One plants a crop with faith and many prayers, all the time hoping. It is the same whenever we give something to charity, perhaps to someone we know who is in need; it requires from us hope, faith and trust in God that what we give will bear fruit.
Also, sowing bountifully asks of us a certain amount of boldness and courage. The one who sows “sparingly,” even if she or he has faith, is expressing a reserve or reticence when asked to put that faith into practice. Sowing bountifully requires us to really put our complete faith in God. We’re giving up a part of our own resources.
At the same time, no one forces us. St. Paul tells us, “Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (v. 7) Most of the modern translations use the word “mind” as the place where this decision is made, but the Greek word St. Paul uses is “heart.” For St. Paul and the Church Fathers it is the heart that is the center of spiritual discernment. Today we think of the heart as the center of emotion and passion — the opposite of rational decision-making — so the translation makes sense in that way, but still something is lost. Our decision to sow bountifully and cheerfully is not just a rational calculation. It is a decision that is tempered and shaped by our trust in God.
We all have fears when we give away some portion of our possessions. So, St. Paul addresses these fears directly: “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. As it is written, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever.’ (Psalm 112:9)” (v. 8-9) If a person bases his decision to be generous simply in his or her intellect, the rational part will say, “the more you give, the less you will have for yourself.” St. Paul is telling them and us to trust in God’s generosity. He is saying that the rational calculus is not the whole story; that generosity, not selfishness, is the fundamental principle at work in creation. God’s rules are different than what might seem to be true on the surface. God’s rules require faith and trust in Him in order to become evident.
“He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness.” (v. 10) God wants us to understand the correlation between material generosity and a spiritual harvest. He wants us to recognize how He sustains us in every way, and that the way to repay Him is by helping others who need our help. This is the real economic principle, a principle that rarely shows up on the nightly ‘Business Report.’
We take as our comfort and inspiration this blessing that St. Paul bestows on us: “You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” (v. 11) When we are generous we not only provide material relief to the person in need, we also strengthen their hope and faith in God. We are the instruments of God’s mercy. He gives to each of us the means and the power to act, comfort, and gladden those around us. Let us use this gift, not sparingly, but bountifully; not grudgingly, but cheerfully. So that together we might thank and glorify our Heavenly Father who loves us.