Bible: Generosity abolishes judgment

August 5 — Romans 2:1-16; August 12 — 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Jul 30, 2018 by

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For the final sessions of the quarter we turn from Jesus’ teaching to the Apostle Paul’s. Yet the basic picture of Christian faith and life remains mostly the same.

Ted Grimsrud

Grimsrud

In the first part of his letter to the Romans, Paul develops theological arguments that lead to his affirmation of the centrality of God’s transforming mercy in the dynamics of salvation and of the need for reconciliation between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

In chapter one, he critiques idolatry, with a profound definition of sin: “Though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (1:21). The consequence is a spiral of injustice and brokenness (1:29-31). However, as we see in chapter two, Paul has more in mind here than simply condemnation of blatant wrongdoers.

He sets up his readers for a different kind of critique. The expression of not honoring and giving thanks to God also includes being judgmental toward others. And it includes assuming that one deserves God’s favor simply because of one’s location within the circle of the so-called “people of God” (see 2:17).

The righteousness/justice of God (the same Greek word is translated either way) starts with God’s kindness (2:4) — or, we could say, God’s compassion, God’s generosity, God’s mercy. Everything follows from that starting point.

Idolatry follows from not recognizing God’s kindness, not giving thanks for it and thereby not honoring God. Injustice follows, clearly. However, as chapter two emphasizes, judgmentalism, self-righteousness and pointing fingers at others also follow from not recognizing God’s kindness.

What is being made an idol when we are judgmental? When we refuse to share with others the kindness God has shown us? Maybe our self-righteousness?

Paul’s point here is not mainly that all people sin and fall short of the glory of God (3:23), true as that statement might be. Rather, Paul means to insist that the starting point for understanding and living with God is that God is kind. And we must be likewise, always (see 13:10: “Love is the fulfilling of the law”).

Our second passage from Paul, 2 Cor. 8:7-15, gives us a concrete expression of living out of the fundamental kindness of God. In chapters eight and nine, Paul discourses on generosity, with a goal in mind: He wants to raise money from the Gentile churches to send back to Jerusalem to aid the city’s destitute church, which is made up of Jewish Christians.

There is practical need here; the Christians in Jerusalem truly were poverty-stricken. However, Paul wants to teach a theological lesson, too. The Christian community, to be faithful, must be a community of reconciled and diverse believers. This reconciliation must be embodied in concrete ways, through acts of generosity and kindness that transcend differences and abolish judgmentalism.

Paul affirms his readers, listing their admirable virtues (8:7). In light of the excellence of their faithfulness, he especially encourages them to excel in generosity. True generosity comes out of a heart of love (as is true of God, who excels in kindness and generosity).

Paul’s model here (echoing his powerful statement in Phil. 2:6-11) is Jesus. “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus’ self-giving is the model for all who trust in him — leading to generosity on all areas of life.

Paul draws on the story of the exodus to offer an intriguing economics model: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little” (2:8-15, quoting Ex. 16:18 concerning the provision of manna in the wilderness). How might this sensibility inform a community that wants to embody generosity, kindness and self-giving love?

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harris­onburg, Va.


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