The apostle Paul gives an interesting discourse about giving in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. The church at Corinth had committed themselves to raising an offering for the church at Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). The collection of this offering was apparently jeopardized by divisions that had arisen at Corinth. Paul was exhorting the Corinthians to follow through on their original commitment. I won’t post the whole passage here but I did want to reflect on a few portions of this passage.
First, we need to recognize that there were more than financial issues at stake here. Paul wants the various churches to see themselves as integrally connected to each other. Even more likely, Paul intends to unite Jew and Gentile together. This passage is not primarily about poverty and wealth distribution. If it were, then why was no appeal made to relieve the poverty of the Macedonians who he also mentions in this passage? Why not a gift to poor people living in Corinth? This gift was apparently made for a very specific purpose.
Second, in the first few verses of Chapter 8 Paul reports the sacrificial gift of the poor Macedonians to spur the Corinthians on in their giving. Then Paul writes:
2 Corinthians 8:7-9
7 Now as you excel in everything -- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you -- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. 8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 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. (NRSV)
Paul makes clear that he is not commanding an offering. Rather than seeing the offering as a tax or duty, Paul wants the Corinthians to see the connection between financial giving in this matter and the gift Christ has poured out to them. Also notice that in verse 8 Paul explicitly says this offering is a test of their love, which would seem to indicate that this offering was something out of the ordinary.
Third, Paul continues:
2 Corinthians 8:13-15
13 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 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 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."
Paul is not asking the Corinthians to euphemistically “give a kidney” here. The church in Jerusalem is in need and by “need” we are not talking about being a little short on expenses. We are talking about people in destitution that need to get back on their feet so they can care for themselves.
Verse 15 is a reference to Exodus 16:18 when manna was sent to the Israelites as they wondered in the wilderness. The people went out to collect the manna. People collected varying amounts but the manna was to be shared in such a way that everyone had enough to eat. It is important to remember that the daily collection of manna was a provisional, not normative, expression of God's provision. It was to test the Israelites faithfulness in a unique circumstance. Later the Israelites were brought into "a land flowing with milk and honey" where abundance was to be the reality. As God was testing the faithfulness of the Israelites, so was Paul testing the faithfulness of the Corinthians with this offering.
Moving into chapter 9, Paul reminds the Corinthians that he has been bragging about them. Should they falter now, they will bring shame upon Paul and upon themselves. Then Paul writes:
2 Corinthians 9:6-9
6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever."
Again, we have an emphasis on the voluntary nature of the gift the Corinthians are giving. They are to weigh what their gift will mean versus what benefit they will have by keeping resources for themselves. Do they want to reap much? Then they must sow much. Paul reminds them that God has provided abundance to them so that they may be able to share in the work God is doing.
Finally, there is something missional in Paul’s teaching here. He is not teaching about a need for general wealth redistribution in society. I mentioned 1 John 3:17. John talks of seeing another “brother” in need. From what I’ve been able to learn, fictive family always referred to fellow Christians and was not used in the sense of general fraternity that we might use it today. Other New Testament passages (not all necessarily) seem to be targeted toward wealth issues within the church community. In fact, caring for those within the community seems to be the main theme.
I've already noted that no fund-raising was done on behalf of the poor Macedonians of the poor in general. Nor do we see evidence of this kind of offering as normative among the first century churches. But there is further evidence that Paul was not teaching about normative economic redistribution.
It is widely noted that Luke tended to highlight the issues of the poor in his works. Paul notes in Galatians 2:10 that the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) had asked Paul and Barnabas to keep the poor in mind in their missionary efforts. This appears to be a driving force in Paul's attempts to collect this offering, which he mentions in multiple letters. Why does Luke make no mention of this aspect of the sharing with regard to the Council at Jerusalem or to this practice occurring between various churches in his Acts of the Apostles? This seems like precisely the sort of thing Luke would have seized upon, much like is reference to "holding things in common" in Acts 2 through 5.
While there are some important principles in these two chapters I would be cautious about building an economic ethic based primarily on this text.