“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.” (II Corinthians 8:9)
This is one of my favorite concepts in theology. Kenosis – the concept that Christ, who was God and shared all the attributes of the Godhead, emptied himself of all being God entails to become one with humanity. Paul alludes to this idea again in the hymn found in Philippians 2:5-1:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians Paul tells us that this self-emptying of Christ, his becoming poor, was so that we might become rich. Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, and one of the great teachers of the church is quoted as saying, “The Son of God became man, that we might become god.” This idea, called theosis, does not mean we become “gods” in the same way that the Trinity is God, but that we becomes “partakers of the divine nature” as II Peter 1:4 states it. Through Christ’s emptying of all the prerogatives of Divinity he lifts up humanity, restoring it to its rightful place that was lost with the disobedience in the Garden of Eden.
Paul is using this self-sacrificing, self-emptying act of Christ to call upon the Corinthians to engage in a similar act of self-emptying and self-sacrifice. Paul is attempting to raise money to aid the community in Jerusalem. The region of Palestine had experienced a severe famine that crippled the economy and led to severe struggles for the believers in Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. Paul is calling on the communities he visits to provide economic relief for those struggling and in need. To the Corinthian community, he offers the example of the churches of Macedonia as a challenge. Despite their own struggles, the churches of Macedonia “gave according to their means, and even beyond their means” (II Cor. 8:3). Now Paul is asking the same of the Corinthian community, a community that excels in everything (II Cor. 7).
Although Paul upholds the model of Christ, who emptied himself of everything, becoming poor for their sake, he does not expect the Corinthians to give everything. In this he seems to moderate Jesus’ command to the rich young man to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor” (Mark 10:21). Instead he calls for giving in eagerness according to one’s means. Paul’s advice calls the Corinthians to examine their abundance, particularly in comparison to the poverty of others ,and give out of one’s abundance, for “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.” Paul is calling for a fair distribution of resources so that none may have too much nor too little.
Wealth distribution is a touchy topic in American society. A couple of years ago we had the Occupy movement challenging the 1% who held the majority of the wealth and giving voice to the discontent of the 99% who felt marginalized. Nothing has changed since then. 1% of the US population controls 43% of the US wealth. The next 4% control an additional 29% of the wealth. That leaves 28% of the US wealth to be shared with the bottom 95%.1
Let’s look a bit closer to home – Knox county. The median household income between 2009-2013 was $24,038. 34.7% of the population in Knox county live below the poverty level.2 Knox county is the 12th poorest county in the US when ranked by household median income.
Most of us in this church are fairly comfortable financially. Paul would say we have an abundance, even if we are not part of the 1%. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians should challenge us to look at those struggling in our community and give from our present abundance. The Christian faith has a tradition of the tithe – the giving of 10% of one’s income as first fruits. I would challenge us all to examine our practices of giving in light of Christ’s self-emptying and self-sacrifice of all that he was so that we might be made rich in him by being partakers of his divinity. Can we not empty ourselves of even 10% for those who are less fortunate than ourselves? I will admit – I struggle with this. The last I calculated my giving it was around 3%. I have been working on increasing my generosity. Each year I try to increase my giving by 10% of the previous year with the goal of eventually reaching that 10% tithe which is defined by the Episcopal Church as the “minimum standard of giving.”
I would also like to challenge the vestry to look at our communal budget in light of Christ’s self-sacrifice. What portion of the parish budget serves the needs of the poor, the hungry, and the homeless? We do send $25.00 a month from St. John’s to support a homeless shelter, and money collected in the “poor box” does go to Episcopal Relief and Development. What percentage of our budget is spent on our internal needs such as facilities upkeep, utilities, priest salary (when we have one)? I don’t want to discount these expenses, as they are important for our continued existence as a community, but do our budgets, personal and communal, reflect more an inward focus on our personal needs, or a self-emptying for the needs of others?
I will conclude with a selection from a homily on the Gospel of Luke by one of my favorite theologians, St. Basil the Great, a fourth century bishop of Caesarea:
What keeps you from giving now? Isn’t the poor person there? Aren’t your own warehouses full? Isn’t the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now – and you want to wait until tomorrow? “I’m not doing any harm,” you say. “I just want to keep what I own, that’s all.” You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone’s use is your own. If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn’t you come into life naked, and won’t you return naked to the earth?
The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.
1“Average America vs the One Percent.” 2015. Forbes. Accessed June 27.http://www.forbes.com/sites/moneywisewomen/2012/03/21/average-america-vs-the-one-percent/.