Readings: 2 Corinthians 8;1-9; Psalm 146; Matthew 5:43-48
Today's readings link the grace of Christ with money, something we might hesitate about doing in such a straightforward way. But this is one of the great strengths of Saint Paul: he refers everything to Christ seeking always to illuminate problems and questions with the light of Christ and His work, the most practical of questions and the most perennial of human problems. The questions and problems then become part of their own solution because they are occasions for Paul to lead his readers deeper into the mystery of Christ.
The letters to the Corinthians are the texts in which we see most clearly how Paul does this. The problems of the young Christian community in Corinth are surprisingly familiar: not just money but questions about sex, power, authority, tradition, liturgy, factions, contrasting approaches to theology and spirituality, gossip, detraction ... the list could go on. In responding to each of these issues Paul has a consistent strategy: refer everything to Christ, understand the problem in the light of Christ, and propose a solution that comes from Christ.
The first reading today is the beginning of a two chapter appeal for money, Paul asking his communities to support the church in Jerusalem. The Macedonian Christians have given generously and freely, he says, from resources that they could not really spare and in spite of the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. What about you Corinthians, are you prepared to be generous from your more prosperous situation? Strong as you are in faith, discourse, earnestness, knowledge and love, can you be strong also in generosity?
It might seem like he wants to put them on a guilt trip so it is important to remember the deeper motivation to which he appeals. Notice how often the term grace appears in this first reading. What the Macedonians have been able to do is a sure sign of the grace of God working in them. They were eager to share in the gracious work of the collection for Jerusalem, seeking from Paul the favour (again the term used is grace) of participating (literally being in communion) in this gracious work.
From there Paul moves immediately to the grace of Christ, his gracious work, and this is Paul's most radical use of the term charis. Though He was rich Christ made himself poor so that we who are poor might become rich. It is one of the most frequently quoted of Paul's statements and it comes in an appeal for money. Our love is not to be merely in words or aspirations but in actions and in sincerity, in concrete and practical actions.
Although the term grace is not used in the passage from Matthew that we read today, it is used frequently in Luke's version of the same passage. If you love those who love you what payment would you get, asks Jesus in Matthew? In Luke's version he says 'what grace is there in that'. If you salute those who salute you, what more is there in that? What generosity is there in it, what is unusual about it? In Luke's version Jesus says, once again, and in reply to two similar questions, 'what grace is there in that'. Instead you are to be like the heavenly Father, his children, acting beyond the call of duty, entering the realm of generosity and spontaneity, showing kindness and mercy not according to strict commerical criteria of exchange but following the law of love and compassion. Famously, Matthew has Jesus concluding that we are to 'be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect' where Luke has him concluding that we are to 'be merciful even as your Father is merciful'. This is the perfection of the heavenly Father, his mercy.
So the motivation of our generosity, the reasons why we ought to live gracefully, mercifully and with compassion, is not just in order to outdo others who are living in the same way. It is in order to be truly living the life of Christ which we have received, a life characterised through and through by grace, mercy and compassion. It is in order to be truly the children of God, to be like our Heavenly Father who is bringing us to birth in this new life, a God who is love and mercy and compassion. The generosity of God is seen in the rain falling indiscriminately and the sun shining extravagantly. The grace of Christ is seen where the rich and the powerful spend themselves on behalf of the poor and the weak.
We are the recipients of many graces and these graces call us to generous service. We can summarise the message with another statement of Paul's, this time from Ephesians (5:1-2): 'imitate God as beloved children and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us'.