Share and Share Un-Alike
When is generosity not generosity? We shall see …
Saint Paul had a special burden on his heart for the Christians of Jerusalem. They suffered the brunt of persecution in the first century. As a result, many of the first believers in Christ had been shunned by friends, disowned by family, cast out of synagogues, and ostracized from society. They lost jobs because of their faith; over time they lost their home and possessions as well, and in some cases their lives. (You can read about this in Acts 6-7 and 12.) By the end of the first century, Jewish Christians were going by the name “Ebionites,” which comes from the Hebrew word for “the poor.”
To top it all off, there was a severe famine in Palestine in 46-48 A.D. (You can find this famine being prophesied by a Christian named Agabus in Acts 11:27-30.) The Christians in Jerusalem, so destitute of financial resources, were the most vulnerable segment of society. The famine threatened to wipe them out completely.
And so Saint Paul made it his mission—along with preaching Christ to the non-Jews of the Roman Empire—to go to the churches he had planted and raise money for their fellow Christians in Jerusalem. He called this project “The Collection for the Saints” (1 Corinthians 16:1). We hear about this collection in several Epistle readings throughout the year. In fact, the reason we pass a tray on Sunday goes back to Paul’s instructions to the Church in Corinth to bring each week to church their contributions for the needs of the Jerusalem Christians. (Nowadays, though, we pass the tray mostly for ourselves, not for others.)
Some of Paul’s churches gave generously to their Jewish brothers and sisters. Saint Paul was thrilled that the Macedonian Christians had donated so much, that “in the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:2). In other words, the Macedonians didn’t have much to give, but they gave in buckets anyway.
Other churches, however, required a little “Apostolic arm-twisting” to open their hearts and wallets. The Church in Corinth was one. Corinth was one of the richest cities in the Empire. It was the Atlantic City of its time: travelers and cash flowed in from all four corners of the world. But the Corinthian Christians were slow to get with the program of sharing with the less fortunate members of the Family of Faith. Paul spends a lot of parchment in his two letters to Corinth to convince them that they could manage to do more.
One of Paul’s persuasions is that the Jerusalem Christians shared their spiritual wealth with all of us, and it was therefore fitting that we should share our material wealth to them (cf. Romans 15:27). They gave us the Apostles, the Gospels, the leadership in world Christianity. If we send something back to them, we are still in their eternal debt, humanly speaking.
When is generosity not generosity? When it is simply a token gift, offered in return for something far greater. Cash given in consideration of spiritual blessings is not generosity; it is gratitude.
In the Great Lent that lies ahead, we will be sending around second trays each Sunday for the relief effort of our Archdiocese for the people of Greece. Archbishop Demetrios and Metropolitan Nicholas are urging us to remember our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Faith who have fallen into dire need. Say what you will about the Greek financial crisis (as well as the American one): the fault does not lie with the average citizen so much as the powers that be. And yet it is—as always—the common man who bears the brunt of the economic pain.
To our hierarchs’ plea for generosity, I would add only this Pauline thought. We Americans Orthodox—regardless of our ethnicity—owe such a great debt to the Christian people of Greece. Their forefathers and foremothers kept the “deposit of faith” pure and intact through centuries of tribulation and martyrdom. To the extent that the treasures of Orthodox theology found a home in Russia and Serbia and Romania and America, it is because earlier generations of Greek-speaking Christians shared their spiritual gifts so freely. How better can we begin to pay back this immeasurable debt than by giving just a little from our abundance to their sons and daughters now in this time of great need?
Let’s share and share un-alike. They gave us a faith which is priceless; we can give back a little of our lucre in return. We still get the better part of the bargain!
When the second tray goes around next Sunday, please be prepared to give—not just generously, but gratefully! Kali Sarakosti! A Blessed Great Lent to all!
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