Paul quotes today’s Psalm in this letter to the Corinthian community. He’s encouraging them to generosity, something we pretty much take for granted – even when perhaps we’re not all that generous ourselves. Things were different in the Mediterranean world. The Romans viewed mercy as a weakness, not a virtue, and in the Middle East, relationships were rigidly reciprocal. I do something for you; you owe me something in return. True generosity (anonymous and without payback) is not a cultural value in Paul’s world.
Paul is concerned with a collection for the poor of Jerusalem, who could not possibly repay a Corinthian gift. It was, in a sense, a prophetic act – manifesting how God sees the running of things, not how human societies might organize their relationships. There can be little doubt that the Hebrew Bible had advocated making provisions for the poor (today’s Psalm is but one instance), but the prevailing culture had nevertheless established reciprocity as its organizing principle. That’s why Jesus had to tell the Pharisees, that, when inviting people to a dinner, they should invite those who couldn’t repay them (Luke 14:12–14).
Knowing this background, there are, I think, two points we need to ponder in response to today’s readings. First, why does God see things this way? Well, Middle Eastern reciprocity implies absolute ownership. What I give to you was/is mine. I can do with it as I please. More to the point: I have a right to do with it as I please. And what you give me back was/is yours, to do with as you please as well. But God says to both of us: “No, it’s not yours. It’s mine. I entrust it to you, not to possess, but to use wisely”. Everything we have, our possessions, our aptitudes, our opportunities . . . our very lives, they’re all gifts. The only responses conceivable in God’s way of running things (read: The Kingdom of God) are gratitude and sharing.
Second, we need to examine the validity of the cultural systems that shape our own responses. Yes, we do value generosity, and we tend to value it even more in circumstances in which the recipient cannot return the favor. So far, so good. But too often we see that generosity as “charity”. We must ask ourselves what we mean by “charity”. Is it giving to the less fortunate something that is rightfully ours? – an act that gives us public esteem and makes us feel good? Or is it an attitude of total sharing of all we have been given – total sharing because someone needs what we have? Total sharing because that’s what God has done for us? And total trust, that God will provide us with all we are able to share (as in the multiplication of the loaves).
The Corinthians were separated by roughly 1,000 miles from Jerusalem. They spoke different languages. They would never know the recipients of their giving. But the household of God is hurting, is fractured, if some of its members are in want. No matter how “deserving” or how remote they may be, we simply have to lift everyone up. Otherwise it is some other God (i.e., idol) we serve, not the God who is Jesus’ Father.