(Epistle from the Commemoration of Elizabeth of Hungary)
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.
I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 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. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 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 our present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 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.’ –2 Corinthians 8:7-15 (NRSV)
Paul is writing to a group who has done well in many things, praiseworthy things that benefit their community and the mission Paul has set for them. One thing remained, that being to finish what was started and finish it with enthusiasm, love generosity, and, most of all, wisdom.
One way of describing a generous person is to say that they would “give you the shirt off their back”. Generally, people take that to mean that the person can be counted on to give generously of whatever they have that someone else needs. Of course, they might not literally remove their shirt in public if someone else needed it (although there are people who have done that in emergencies) or give up their house to a homeless family, but if it is possible to give without depriving themselves too severely, they are the folks who can be depended upon to give.
The generosity has to be genuine but also has to be tempered with wisdom. I have heard people urging others to “Give until it hurts.” To a certain extent that might be a worthy goal, but that isn’t what Paul is telling the Corinthians to do. Paul suggests a balance: giving from the abundance but not so much that the givers themselves become persons with needs. Maybe that sounds a bit selfish, but in Paul’s world, there were only so many resources to go around. What one person had more of meant that someone else had less. Paul is suggesting that there be equality, the rich sharing from their abundance to help make the lives of those less fortunate better.
Paul also asks the Corinthians to finish what they started. It is so easy to dive into something very enthusiastically when the need is first presented but unless the situation is one where a quick fix works, enthusiasm can wane until it dries up altogether. The need might still exist, but contributors have found new enthusiasms and fresh needs to try to address. In the case of a disaster, the need recognition is immediate and usually extensive, so charities and individuals rush in to try to fill those needs. Yet as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer charities and individuals continuing to work to bring the world of the disaster back to a place of normalcy and safety. New disasters have occurred and help is needed to begin that recovery process. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes it seems it would take the wisdom of Solomon to decide what to do, when and how.
The questions I have for myself are how do I respond to Paul’s challenge? How do I respond to the needs of the world with generosity but also with wisdom? And, probably most importantly, am I willing to sustain my giving until the problem no longer exists or am I going to quit before I get to the finish line?