Any reader of the Gospels knows that Jesus taught radical sharing of our possessions with people who need our help. Luke’s Gospel is particularly emphatic about this principle. God’s prophet invites the truly repentant person to share anything they have beyond what they need to live on, even if they have just a second pair of clothes and someone else has none (Luke 3:8-11). Whoever wants to be Jesus’ disciple will surrender all his or her possessions (Luke 14:33; cf. 12:33).
Whether literally or as a principle expressed perhaps hyperbolically, these passages are surely demanding. Some Christians in history, such as St. Anthony and many monastic movements, followed this literally for themselves. Others, such as Charles Finney, suggested that this teaching applied to all prospective disciples: we do not lose all our possessions at the moment of conversion, but we do lose our ownership of them.
We see this principle lived out by the early Christians in times of revival in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35. The church eventually developed mechanisms for strategic sharing with local Christians, and handled fairly complaints of minority groups within the church (6:1-5). Eventually, however, the church outgrew a single locale, and Christians who had more than what they needed to live on in one location needed to help Christians who had less than what they needed to live on in another location. Paul and his coworker Barnabas were agents of the Antioch church’s gifts to the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:28-30), and this may have provided the model for one of Paul’s most ambitious projects: a collection for the poor in Jerusalem (cf. 24:17).
One of Paul’s driving concerns involved Jerusalem’s status as the mother church. Because Jewish Christians contributed to the Gentiles spiritually, Gentile Christians owed them material aid in their time of need (Rom 15:27). Paul probably uses this collection to establish reconciliation between the culturally distant churches of Jerusalem and the rest of the Roman world.
Another aspect of his concern is particularly relevant to us, however. Many of Paul’s “mission churches” were in cities with stronger economies than Jerusalem, and many of the members in his churches had more than what they needed to live on. This may have been true in Galatia (1 Cor 16:1), but believers in Macedonia (Rom 15:26) gave even from relative poverty (2 Cor 8:1-5). Corinth, however, was one of the wealthiest cities in the Roman world—and its Christians there unfortunately had to be prodded into giving!
Paul lays out the principle plainly for them: “equality” (2 Cor 8:13-15). If God supplied Christians in some parts of the world more than what they needed to live on, it was so they could help Christians in other parts if the world who had less than what they needed. God supplied the total church with sufficient resources to make sure that everyone was taken care of, but gave some individual churches more than others. Why? So those with resources could share God’s ministry of giving. God is the provider for all of us, so when we share with others the praise goes to God (9:8-15). The church in each part of the world must, of course, be self-supporting, except in times of emergency such as famines; but we can still coordinate our various resources as strategically as possible. Someday the roles of the needy may be reversed (8:14), but the principle remains unchanged.
Paul shows that sharing is not just with needy individuals (as one might guess from reading the Gospels), but also with needy churches. Some have spiritual resources to contribute; some have material resources; each individual and each church must contribute what we can for the greater good of Christ’s body.
Given the exchange rates, a dollar can do many times more in most African countries, and many other parts of the world, than it can do in the United States. In one country, I was told that my background commentary would cost a pastor two months’ salary. Twenty year ago, after I discovered that, I re-prioritized my giving. At the time, 25¢ could provide a meal for a person in a famine-stricken country. I was single at that time, and chose to live in an efficiency apartment that doubled as my office, eating as simply as I could so as to make available every cent possible for wider needs. Having a family has since adjusted how I must budget my resources, but the principle of caring for others remains important. In a world where millions of children die annually from hunger, malnutrition and preventable diseases; in a world where some countries have over a million AIDS orphans; in a world where millions of people live in cardboard boxes in dumps and lack clean drinking water, the sacrificial generosity of Christians can make a life-and-death difference.