Our Lord Jesus Christ was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty.
One of St. Paul’s preoccupations during his missionary journeys was fund raising, or the collection of money. He thought it very important that his Gentile Christian converts should support the Jewish Christians living in impoverished circumstances in Jerusalem. This is the subject of the passage from II Corinthians we heard in our second reading today. St. Paul mentions the same collection also in 1 Corinthians (16:1), and in Romans (15:26ff.) and in Galatians (2:10); and we read about it too in the Acts of the Apostles (24:17). In common with all speakers in favour of good causes, Paul’s message here is: Please be generous. But as he warms to this theme, almost as if in passing, he drops in a verse of enormous theological significance. This is verse 9 of Chapter 8 in St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. Suddenly we find ourselves lifted up into the realm of the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, or the hymn of Christ’s self-emptying in Chapter 2 of Philippians.
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, Paul begins. The word “grace” occurs no fewer than ten times in this section of the letter (8:1 - 9:15), each time with a slightly difference nuance of meaning. Here it means: Christ’s freely given gift, his divine favour, his outpoured love. Our version paraphrases, perhaps not unhelpfully: “Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was”. Paul goes on: He was rich, but he became poor for your sake. That is, before the Incarnation Christ existed eternally as God. In St. John’s words: He was the Word who was with God and who was God, through whom all things were made. Rich, then, indeed. But he became poor, for the Word was made flesh. Poor indeed, and then poorer yet: “even to accepting death, death on a Cross” (Phil 2:8). Why poor? To make you rich out of his poverty; says Paul; or again in St. John’s words: to give us power to become children of God ... that we may have life in his name.
O admirabile commercium! O wonderful business transaction! “He became what we are”, the ancient Fathers loved to say, “in order to make us what he is”. He took our poverty in order to give us his wealth; he took our wretchedness in order to give us his beatitude; he took our mortality in order to give us his life; he took our sin in order to give us his holiness; he took our condition of servitude, in order to crown us with glory and honour as God’s sons.
Be generous, then, cries Paul, as God in Christ has been generous towards you. And that’s a remarkable thought. St. Paul is here setting a divine standard against which to measure our behaviour and attitudes. He does the same in Philippians Chapter 2. There his theme is the virtue of humility and unselfishness (cf. also Eph 5:1). Here in II Corinthians he is speaking about the virtue of generosity. In both cases scholars speculate that Paul presses into service a formula, perhaps part of a liturgical hymn, which he did not so much invent as inherit from the very early Church.
What St. Paul says here is limitlessly relevant, in every aspect of all our lives. His point is not just that we should put money into this or that collection, but that we should have in us the mind of Jesus Christ. Give generously of yourself, suggests Paul, not only after the model of Jesus, but also as participating in his redemptive and sanctifying work. Give generously in all your duties of service, in your work, in your prayer, in your penance, with all your mind and all your heart. If your scope for good works seems limited by constrained circumstances, such as poor health, or poverty, or obedience, still be constantly generous, even as you accept the sufferings that come your way. Look at the unimaginable riches God has given you, is giving you, will give you. Look at Jesus crucified, and be filled with thanksgiving, and with joy; be outward looking; offer your sufferings in intercession; accept them in love; use them in endless praise.
How can I be generous? Like humility, the virtue of generosity is deeply attractive, and utterly desirable, but difficult to attain, and surely therefore rather rare. Opposed to it is my deeply-rooted selfishness, my love of comfort and security, my laziness and greed, my fears and anxieties. If we want to possess and exercise truly Christ-like generosity - which we do! - then we have to ask for it. Ask insistently, and then prowl about looking for occasions to exercise it. Ask, said the Lord, and you will receive (cf. Mt 7:7). But beware! If much is given you, then much will be demanded from you (Lk 12:48). Though of course as St. Paul everywhere insists: the more we give, the more grace and blessing we receive.
The other side of that coin is that the less we give, the less we tend to receive. At supper just now our community is reading the life of St. Charles of Sezze. He was a 17th century Italian Franciscan lay brother and mystic. Charles tells many anecdotes illustrating this point. When rebuked for giving away too much of the monastery’s goods to the poor, he would always obey, and at once the income of the house would plummet. When he was allowed to be generous again, the community’s income correspondingly rose.
Of course how much you give on any occasion is a matter for prudence, for which counsel or spiritual direction is useful, because we are not called to bankrupt ourselves, or to destroy our health, or to indulge in reckless or unstainable gestures. Still, we are called to be very generous, and never to say, “I have done enough”.
How generous is very generous? Surely a Christian’s generosity cannot be sufficient until it has become total. St. Paul seems to have achieved that: in heroic patience, and outstanding courage, and continuous prayer, and much suffering, both physical and mental, and true death to self, and readiness for martyrdom, in mystical identification with Jesus Christ. We, who may not rise to such heights, still sometimes make great acts of self gift, as at our baptism, or solemn profession, or marriage. And then, thank God, time is given to us to live this out: moment by moment, day by day, year by year, opportunity after opportunity. And during all this time we find support in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is Christ’s own total self gift, made to God, to us, to me. Today, then, once again, I prepare to receive his Body given up for me, and to drink his Blood poured out for me. As I do so I ask that he will conform me to Himself: in total generosity, in love without limit, in self gift to the end.