And You Have So Many
Listen to “And You Have So Many” By Fred Smith
This being the week of Mother’s Day, I remember one of my father’s favorite stories about his mother. They lived in a very poor section of Nashville where my grandfather was the pastor of a small Baptist church. With a pitiful salary the struggle to keep the family of five boys fed and in clothes was a constant pressure on her. One day in the market she spied some ripe tomatoes but could not afford more than one.
“Those are beautiful tomatoes,” she complimented the shopkeeper. She then paused and said, “And you have so many.” How could he resist the gentle but deliberate pressure? He couldn’t and she walked away with several for the price of one.
“And you have so many” became a tagline in our family for any time we felt someone putting pressure on us to do something that was probably the right thing for us to do anyway but we needed the extra nudging.
So it was with Paul in his letter to the Corinthian church about contributing to the fund for the church in Jerusalem. My grandmother would have understood him completely. He was not going to let them off the hook. Instead, he was focused on their following through on their commitment to give. More than that, actually. He set up a friendly competition between the churches to see who could give more. He compared the Corinthian wealth to the sacrifice of the Macedonian churches and let them know it would be an embarrassment to everyone if they did not at least match them. Not only that, but it would be mortifying to him if they were to come in under the amount for which they were capable.
We over-spiritualize Paul’s method and fail to recognize the mastery of his subtle (and not so subtle) pressure on the churches to make a gift for the relief of the church in Jerusalem. He is negotiating with their conscience and their desire to please him. He is even saying that making a gift will be seen as a tangible way for them to prove their love and their devotion to Christ. It’s not legalism or manipulation – but it gets close! He knew exactly what he was doing.
As well, we sometimes forget that Paul was not writing a treatise on principles of generosity and I doubt he ever intended the famous passage in chapter 9 to be used for Stewardship Sunday or in regular fund-raising for ministries.
“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:
“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever.”
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”
Every charlatan and huckster in the long history of the church has used “seed sowing” theology to fool people into believing their giving to the ministry is sowing seed and that money will return to them multiplied. The church even then had a problem with teachers, prophets and evangelists roaming from city to city taking advantage of people and their desire to support God’s work or play to their mistaken desire for God’s financial blessing. Widows were (then and now) especially susceptible to men who were adept at cheating them. There were numerous schemes for getting rich by believing God would bless Christians. While we say it today without even thinking, the phrase “You can’t outgive God” lends itself to this mistaken understanding of what Paul meant by enlarging our harvest.
Paul’s interest is in equality and not income leveling or fixing the unequal distribution of wealth. Rather, he is encouraging the importance of seeing all the churches as equals – not poor or rich. We should not see people as objects of charity but as partners in the work. There are no tee shirts that read, “We work with the poorest of the poor.” Instead, there is mutual respect and mutual benefit. If all we see in people is their poverty and what is lacking we will never have respect for them. We will always have a mindset of superiority and pity instead of seeing them as equals with something worth bringing to us.
We are all in this together – and we have so many!