Spreading it around

Dolly-Levi-hello-dolly-1969“Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”

That’s the folk wisdom of matchmaker Dolly Levi, exuberantly played by Barbra Streisand in one of my favorite Hollywood musicals, 1969’s Hello, Dolly!  As metaphors go, it’s hilariously earthy. But there’s truth in it, and even the apostle Paul might agree.

As we’ve seen in numerous posts, Paul spends quite a bit of time in Second Corinthians talking about the collection he’s gathering for the poor in Jerusalem. Reading between the lines of the letter, one senses that the Corinthians are ambivalent. On the one hand, they want to help; on the other, they feel a little threatened by the prospect of open-ended charity.

Paul’s response is to direct their gaze away from narrow concerns about money and toward the wideness of God’s grace. The collection is grounded in God’s gracious provision, and is itself a work of grace. And using an agricultural metaphor, Paul suggests that seed that is sown generously becomes an abundant harvest. He wants the Corinthians to envision all the good that will come as a result of their gift:

Your ministry of this service to God’s people isn’t only fully meeting their needs but it is also multiplying in many expressions of thanksgiving to God. They will give honor to God for your obedience to your confession of Christ’s gospel. They will do this because this service provides evidence of your obedience, and because of your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone. They will also pray for you, and they will care deeply for you because of the outstanding grace that God has given to you. Thank God for his gift that words can’t describe! (2 Cor 9:12-15, CEB)

Yes, there is a financial need, and your gift will help. But God can multiply your gift in so many other ways. You will have given a concrete demonstration of the work of the gospel in your own lives, and others will be rejoice to see it and be encouraged in their own faith. They’ll praise God because of it! And even though you are Gentiles and the recipients of your gift are Jews, your generosity will knit you all together as one church under the new covenant. They will care about you and pray for you like family. What incredible grace that multiplies and spreads! Thank God for such a gift! Words can’t begin to describe it.

How do you describe something that words can’t describe? Paul seems to coin a word: it’s “indescribable” (NIV, NRSV), something that can’t be declared. He is amazed to think how, in the hands of God, acts of grace and mercy multiply. That’s the vision he wants the Corinthians to have, so they can stop worrying about what they can afford and get excited instead about what God will do with their gift to do good, strengthen the church, and bring glory to God.

Is that our vision as well? If so, we can spread it around, with joy and anticipation, and watch to see what grows.