Paul’s “Marxism”

In this coming Sunday’s Epistle reading (2 Cor 5:7-15), we see Paul at his most “communist”:

“Now finish doing [the collection of money for the needy in Jerusalem], 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 your 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.’”

Not exactly Marx: this is from “each according to their means” to each according to their needs. Yet the goals are similar: that no one should “have too much” and that no one should “have too little.”

These principles were not unique to Paul. They were seen in the earliest church as reflected in the early stories of Acts. “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35).

James Tissot, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

And the earliest Christians were simply following the example of Jesus, the Messiah who led a band of followers funded by women of means, who taught his followers to give generously in answer to prayer for “our (collective) daily bread,” and who distributed food freely and equitably to the needy (Luke 8:1-3; 6:30-38; 11:1-4; 9:10-17).

All this is a far cry from our day. In January 2019 Oxfam reported that the world’s 26 richest people had as much wealth as the poorest 50% (3.8 billion people). All reports during the pandemic indicate that the rich have only gotten richer while the poor have stayed the same or gotten poorer.

Is the church any better? When adjusted for scale (there are few billionaires in the church of any denomination) it’s hard to say we are. The wealthier among us often hold disproportionate power and influence. We who have comforts really, really like them, while those without might get a Facebook post from us or a few cans for the food bank or maybe a march to the Legislature.

This is not to burden any of us individually with the pressure of dealing with systemic poverty—systemic issues require systemic change. But are there things we can do individually, as families, even more as congregations, as MCM and MC Canada, to help us as a society take constructive steps toward real and lasting economic justice?

This is not Marxism—it is walking in the way of Jesus, who walked in the way of Moses and the Prophets.

Paul’s Impossible Credentials for Ministry

In this coming Sunday’s Epistles reading, the Apostle Paul lays out this impossible list of ministry credentials for servants of God:

We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:3-10)

It’s quite the list. And, as I said above, it’s rather impossible, at least all the time. Even Paul at times struggled with “patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love.” It’s also a dangerous list, for without good self-awareness and understanding of wider context, this list can nurture an ego-centric persecution complex that tramples the needs of the genuine poor and vulnerable around us.

Rembrandt, Paul in Prison

But as impossible and dangerous as these kinds of lists might be, they are helpful. They are good for us to reflect on as followers of Jesus. What afflictions have we actually endured for the sake of the gospel? How we have we shown genuine love in our ministry, or truthful speech? Are we too concerned for our reputation to be effective servants of God? Do we have too much, are we too comfortable, to make others rich in Christ out of our poverty?

Things Are Not as They Appear

As I read the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, one theme strikes me as tying all four texts together: things are not as they appear. Reality is often much different than it seems at face value. The truth often requires a deep dive beneath the surface.

There’s 1 Samuel 16, where the prophet Samuel is persuaded that Jesse’s son Eliab is God’s choice for Israel’s next king. After all, not only is Eliab the eldest son, worthy of double blessing, but he is strong and tall just like a king should be (like the first king, Saul, was, in fact—see 15:35 for how well that went). But God says no to Eliab, for “God does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”

Then there’s Psalm 20, where we hear these words of David: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.” Military might and strength seems like it should be the way forward for an up-and-coming nation. Yet David insists that’s the wrong way to look on things. (Too bad he and later kings and queens forgot this.)

There’s also 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul comes straight out and says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a ‘fleshly’ point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a ‘fleshly’ point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” No one, not even Jesus, can be taken at face value. It requires a “new creation” heart-change to see people for who they really are.

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by James Paterson

Finally, there’s Mark 4 with two of my favourite parables of Jesus, the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed. These parables highlight the unexpected insignificance and inherent mystery of God’s reign, both in how it begins and how it grows. God’s dominion does not begin or grow like other royal reigns; it comes not through conquest or coercion, but through small acts of love in solidarity with the least in the world’s eyes.

These texts invite us to look beyond the surface of things, to dig a little deeper. They encourage us to see people for who they really are, not merely who they appear to be. They call us to look for the reign of God not in the powerful and mighty, not in the big and flashy, but in the small and insignificant things of life.