by Rev. Ellen Jennings
2 Corinthians 8:13-15
Many years ago, when I was working as an organizer with Bread for the World, we used to refer to the “two feet” of social ministry: charity and justice. Art Simon, founder of Bread, claimed that one foot should be planted in the realm of social or institutional change (i.e. creating fair and just systems), the other in the area of direct service (i.e. providing charity). And, of course, both feet are needed; otherwise we lose our balance.
I see mercy as directly related to charity. For, at its best, charity includes human-to-human interaction. When we have the opportunity to look another human being in the eye and offer that person food or clothing or shelter, we are forced to acknowledge that person’s humanity. We are pushed to acknowledge our own vulnerability. And we might even be inspired to embrace an attitude of humility, to accept as true the maxim, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
So mercy is important. Mercy, at its best, has a human face. Mercy, sometimes translated as “kindness,” allows us to make a connection with those whom we might never, otherwise, have come into contact. Mercy inspires our charitable giving. Mercy energizes our commitment to work at a food pantry, or after school program, or homeless shelter. Mercy opens our hearts, catalyzes our actions, and, at its best, moves us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” Mercy might even be what Jesus had in mind when he told us in Matthew 25, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”
Mercy is “all good.”
The problem is; mercy’s not enough. Mercy (or charity) is only one foot. And without both feet we lose our balance. So what about that other foot? What about justice?
Well, as mentioned already, justice typically involves institutional or social change. And we’ll get to that in a moment. But justice is also—picture the courtroom statue with the scales—about balance, fairness, and equality. And while we can certainly strive for fairness and balance in our personal charitable giving and merciful interactions, if it’s in the context of overall societal inequality then we’re going to be stuck rowing upstream.
And it’s this inequality that Paul is addressing in today’s reading from his Letter to the Corinthians. Here’s the background: Paul had visited the church in Corinth a year or so earlier, and they (a rather wealthy group of individuals) had agreed to help out their much less well-to-do brothers and sisters in Christ in Jerusalem. In the intervening period of time, the church in Corinth had been visited by some of the leaders from the Jerusalem community, and they’d spent their time arguing about issues of theology and authority. So, needless to say, the Corinthians got sidetracked (note: it’s almost always more interesting to argue about who’s in charge and what we believe than it is to do the real work of creating a more just and merciful world!).
However, Paul, to his credit, didn’t get bogged down in those arguments; instead, he wrote to urge the Corinthians to return to their original intention—that of supporting the poor and struggling community of believers in Jerusalem.
I do not say this as a command…., he writes. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire doing something – now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means (8:8-12).
In other words—you said you were going to do it, so do it
But even more important, Paul explains why. He writes:
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’
“So that their abundance may be for your need.” I find that phrase a little confusing. What does Paul mean? Well, let’s take a look at another version. In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, he translates the same passage as follows:
This isn’t so others can take it easy while you sweat it out. No, you’re shoulder to shoulder with them all the way, your surplus matching their deficit, their surplus matching your deficit. In the end you come out even. As it is written, ‘Nothing left over to the one with the most, nothing lacking to the one with the least.’
But even that translation is confusing! What surplus? And what deficit?
Well, I think the clue lies in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible passage to which Paul is referring. In the words of Exodus 16:18, “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.”
This passage, of course, refers to the time when the Israelites were wandering for forty years in the desert after having been liberated from their bondage in Egypt. God provided them with manna from heaven, but it was a gift with limitations, a gift that prevented any one individual or family from taking more than their share. As Professor Daniel D. Defenbaugh writes on his website, Seeds of Shalom, the manna was offered “not that some may gorge themselves and become fat while others go completely without—a reality that many of us know all too well—but so that a sense of equality may abound and thus reflect the singular essence of the Kingdom of God: that [as Paul writes in his letter] ‘those who have much do not have too much, and those who have little do not have too little.”
And, clearly, some of us have way too much manna! In comparison to the world community (and, even to those “across the river” in our own city) we’re overfed. We’ve collected way more than our share, while others are struggling to survive. And while charity is, of course, an important merciful act, just giving back a small portion of this manna is not going to right the wrong we’ve done by collecting more than our fair share in the first place. No, that’s going to require a rebalancing, a commitment to justice, an intentional creation of greater social equality.
And this is exactly what Paul and his predecessor, the author of the Book of Exodus, are writing about—justice, fairness, and equality. Both the Old and New Testaments teach that it’s not about taking too much manna and then trying to make things better by giving a little bit of it back. Or, having twenty pairs of shoes and charitably giving away one. No, it’s about not taking too much in the first place. It’s about committing to a fair balance of resources between individuals and their communities.
So why am I preaching this? Well, because we live in a time of great social inequality! And I’m afraid that, without a serious intent to change, not only is this inequality going to get worse, significantly and negatively impacting the more than 1 billion poorest people in the world, but also our planet is going to be unable to sustain the consumption to which we have become accustomed. Because we’ve been hogging God’s manna!
As Edith Rasell, Minister of Economic Justice in the United Church of Christ writes in A Fair Balance: Reducing Inequality in the United States and Around the World:
Paul instructs the Corinthians on the importance of a “fair balance,” where no one has either too much or too little. May we have ears to truly hear Paul’s message today at a time when, in the United States and around the world, there are a few, extremely wealthy people, far too many poor, and many in the middle who are struggling to avoid sliding into poverty. As Paul said, a fair balance is needed. One person’s abundance is for another person’s need. There is plenty for all if we share. The Church is called to work for a world where there is a “fair balance” between abundance for a few and the needs of many.
But, according to the UN’s 2011 Human Development report, the exact opposite is happening. Instead of narrowing the gap between rich and poor, income inequality is widening within most countries. In the United States, the combined income of the top 1% of households more than doubled between 1970 and 2010, rising from 9% of national income to 20%. Whereas average income for the bottom 90% of households fell. And to get an idea of just how much this access to resources matters, a baby boy born in the U.S. to a family in the top 5% will live 25% longer than a boy born into the bottom 5%. Which is a very real human tragedy, not to mention a complete travesty of justice.
Of course, it is also true that, as inequality has grown among people within most countries, it has also increased between countries. For example, in 1990, average income in the United States was 38 times larger than in Tanzania. Fifteen years later, in 2005, income in the US was 61 times larger.
So, what to do? Well, as Edith Rasell writes, “People of faith have long advocated for many reforms that would reduce global inequality: cancellation of the debts owed by impoverished countries, making trade agreements fairer to workers and businesses in the global South, and providing assistance for development and economic growth that will directly benefit the poor. But it is also critically important for us to realize that the usual method of fighting poverty – promoting economic growth – is fairly ineffective in a world where a high level of inequality is the norm.”
Why? Because in situations of inequality, most of the gains from economic growth flow to those at the top of the income ladder, not the ones at the bottom or even in the middle. In the presence of high inequality, economic growth primarily produces more income and things for the already wealthy. As Ms. Rasell writes:
Consider again what happened in the U.S. between 1970 and 2010. In 1970, average income among the bottom 90% of households was $31,839. Forty years later, in 2010, the economy had doubled in size, per person, but average income for the bottom 90% had fallen to $29,840, adjusted for inflation. Over the same 40 years, average income among the top 1/100th of 1% rose more than five-fold, up nearly $20 million per household. In the presence of inequality, just letting the free market work, even though it may grow the economy, is not an effective way to address poverty or even, as we have seen in the United States, to strengthen the middle class.
And the truth is, if the current emphasis on economic growth is not benefiting the poor, if we’re not achieving, as Paul writes, “a fair balance,” then why are we growing? For we certainly don’t need more stuff! We certainly don’t need to be gathering more manna!
If growth isn’t helping the poor, then all it’s doing is eating up the God-given resources of this beautiful earth. For constant growth means ever-increasing energy use, more greenhouse gas emissions, greater use of diminishing raw materials, ongoing destruction of the natural environment, and the creation of an unbelievable amount of waste.
So what to do? Well, we clearly need to reevaluate our strategy for ending poverty and creating economic security for all the worlds’ people. Because a sole focus on economic growth fails on two counts: it primarily benefits the wealthy, and it’s environmentally unsustainable.
As Professor Defenbaugh writes:
The path that lies ahead for the church is perhaps more difficult than it has ever been… In the past we have been faithful and somewhat successful at gathering our resources and funding relief efforts in every corner of the globe. But the climate has changed, and it appears that what has worked so well – by which I mean, so conveniently – in the past will need now to be severely amended, and this in keeping with the example of Christ. Our hope for the future lies not so much in what we are able to give, but in what we are willing to give up; not in what we are able to do, but in our willingness to do without.
“Our hope for the future lies… in our willingness to do without.” Like the church in Corinth, many of us in well-to-do US congregations consume and hoard such a quantity of material goods that our way of life directly conflicts with the biblical mandate to gather only as much as we need, not to mention loving or caring for our neighbor as we care for ourselves. Thus, the time has come for us to ask not only what we can give but also what we may need to give up. For, if growth will not eradicate poverty, the only other option is a fairer sharing of resources between those with abundance and those in need.
Jesus can be very direct when it comes to such issues. And in many of his parables he lets us know what he thinks about the accumulation of wealth (aka hoarding of manna), especially when it comes at the expense of those without. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then it is for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God,” he says in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. Ouch! And the 3rd century bishop, Origen, expounds upon this parable by quoting from the non-canonical Gospel of Hebrews:
[A] rich man said to him, “Teacher, what good do I have to do to live?” He said to him, “Mister, follow the Law and the Prophets.” He answered, “I’ve done that.” He said to him, “Go sell everything you own and give it away to the poor and then come follow me.” But the rich man didn’t want to hear this and began to scratch his head. And the Lord said to him, “How can you say that you follow the Law and the Prophets? In the Law it says: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Look around you: many of your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of Abraham, are living in filth and dying of hunger. Your house is full of good things and not a thing of yours manages to get out to them.”
And friends, this is the truth. Our house is full of very good things and not much of it do we manage to get out to those who have less. Charity or mercy asks only that we share. But justice requires that we work toward achieving a fair balance. Easy? No. Possible? Well, you tell me. But here’s how Jesus put it:
“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”
May it be so.