Formations 09.17.2017: Sowing and Reaping

2 Corinthians 9:1-15

“The Harvesters” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Wikimedia Commons)

Responding to an agricultural crisis, Paul uses an agricultural image to show how the people of Corinth might respond to the famine in Jerusalem. He says those who sow little will reap little while those who sow generously will reap generously (v. 6).

However Paul understands this conventional wisdom, the suffering in Jerusalem calls it into question. No matter what they have sown, they have struggled to harvest anything meaningful.

Still, this piece of wisdom, which promises us that people will earn as they’ve worked and receive as they’ve been given, shapes our beliefs about the world. And still, if we let it, life as it is lived calls this belief into question.

Reaching back to the Old Testament, we can see our forebearers working to balance God’s promises of life with their experiences of injustice and suffering. When Paul struggled in light of suffering in Jerusalem, he invited the Corinthians to remember the Psalmists’ wisdom: “He scattered everywhere” (v. 9).

For Paul, this claim, which could easily be seen as disconnected, holds the power to resolve the tension created by innocent suffering. Pointing to the divine act of scattering equally allows us and the Corinthians to notice the places where the world struggles to experience God’s vision of shared life. And it invites us to scatter too by resisting structures of injustice and by offering generosity in the face of unexpected disaster.

But the belief that God scatters everywhere asks us to see the diversity of God’s gifts. They are the material goods necessary for our sustenance but they are also gifts of creativity and compassion and grace.

Chances are that as we need to give, we also could stand to receive. Paul asks the Corinthians to see this communal life of giving and receiving. And as he does, he invites us to enter into our own communities in search of a world where God’s gifts are shared more fully.

Discussion

• When in your own life have you experienced tension between God’s promises and your experiences? How have you experienced comfort in these times? How have you responded in these experiences?
• When you look at the events of recent weeks, what causes lie behind experiences of innocent suffering?
• What responsibilities do Christians have in light of the results and causes of suffering?
• What gifts have you been given? How can you offer these gifts in light of the suffering you encounter?
• How does your experience of community shape the ways that you give as well as receive?
• How does your dream for the world shape the gifts you offer and the way you offer them?

Reference Shelf

The One who Sows…

Second Cor 9:6-14 (A’) reverts to the theme of why the Corinthians and other Christians in Achaia need to give generously. The benefits will be for the Corinthians (vv. 6-11a, 14), for the poor in Jerusalem (v. 12a), and for God (vv. 11b, 12b, 13). Verses 6-11a hang together and speak of benefits of generosity for the Corinthians. Second Cor 9:6, “the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully,” is a maxim of contemporary morality: “As you sow, so shall you reap” (Cicero De Oratore 2.65.261; cf. Job 4:8; Gal 6:7-8); “for those who have sown well will also harvest well” (2 Baruch 15.2; cf. Ps 126:5). Verse 7 is a commentary on what “sows bountifully” means. It means one’s giving must not be done reluctantly or under compulsion but cheerfully (cf. Prov 22:8a LXX; Ecclus 35:9; Philo Special Laws 4.74; Seneca On Benefits 2.2.2.). Verses 8-11a are a commentary on “reap bountifully.” It means liberality is beneficial to those who practice it (cf. Mal 3:10-11; Ecclus 35:10-11; Prov 11:24-25; 19:17). “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (v. 8). Here God’s financial blessings are a gift (blessing, RSV), not a payment for services rendered, that enables one to provide for others (“This is why the Master has made you rich, that you may perform these services for him” [Hermas “Parable” 1.9]). Verse 10 makes the same point, echoing Isa 55:10-11. If people are willing to give, God will make it possible for them to do so. Verse 11a reiterates the same point: “You will be enriched in every way for great generosity.” The attitude toward wealth underlying this section was widespread at the time: wealth is good if it leads to generosity (cf. Matt 6:19-21, 24; 7:7-11; Hermas “Parable” 2.5-7; Clement of Alexandria Can the Rich Man Be Saved?).

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 223.

He Scattered Everywhere

Paul follows his claim about God’s great grace resulting in greater graciousness with a quote from Psalm 112:9. Since God was the primary subject of the sentence in v. 8 (“God is able…”), we most naturally read God as the subject of the quote in v. 9. So, God “scattered abroad, gave to the poor, [God’s] justice [dikaiosynē] abides forever.” In this context the quote confirms Paul’s description of God as gracious and links grace to justice/righteousness, which is characteristic of God and part of God’s purpose for the fulfillment of creation—i.e., it abides forever, thus shaping the age to come. Curiously, however, the subject of the quote in the context of Psalm 112 is the person who fears God and delights in God’s commands (Ps 112:1), who is thus gracious, merciful, and righteous (Ps 112:4). This person is the one who distributes freely, gives to the poor, and whose justice endures forever. Consequently, some scholars believe Paul intended the subject of the quote in his context to be the Corinthian who contributes to the collection. Perhaps Paul welcomed the ambiguity. Certainly Paul understood God as gracious and just. But he was just as clear that our reception of God’s grace would lead us to good work (i.e., acts of justice). Throughout this section of his letter, Paul has been insisting that to receive God’s grace (authentically) is to become gracious, which is why the Corinthians ought to want to share in the good work of the collection.

Mitzi L. Minor, 2 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009), 175–76.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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