“God Loveth a Cheerful Giver” (2 Corinthians 8–13) #BCCSundaySchool2019

 

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Another Paul who modified his ethos by mimicking the rhetoric of a “fool.”

Reading: 2 Corinthians 8–13

Main Topics: (1) Cheerful Giving, (2) Paul’s Fool’s Speech, (3) Thorns in the Flesh

1. Cheerful Giving

In 2 Corinthians 8–9, the Apostle Paul preaches about “cheerful” giving, emphasizing that Christ’s followers should come to the aid of others not through “exhortation” but out of their own choice:

“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:6–7, NRSV)

Paul emphasizes that giving should result from an “eagerness” to give, not from feelings of guilt or pressure: “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.” (2 Cor. 8:12–14, NRSV)

Paul writes that it is a responsibility of Christians to help those in need, but there is some nuance in this message. There is also a sense I read of anti-materialism. The less you are attached to your own worldly goods, the more cheerfully you will give them up when you see someone with less than you. I am reminded of that Grimm’s fairy tale “The Star Child” or “The Star Money,” about a young girl who gives away all of her worldly possessions to creatures in need, until she finds herself alone and cold in the wilderness. Wikipedia is telling me that the story concludes with the girl becoming rich, with stars falling and turning into gold coins, but I swear I’ve read a version to my kids that insinuated that she dies and receives her reward in the peace of having died in pure selflessness.

Heinrich_Vogeler_-_Illustration_Die_SterntalerI’m not sure how the sentiment of “balance” works in this story. Must one be willing to give up all—even the clothes off one’s own back? Or is there a point that keeping one’s coat and watching someone suffer without is justifiable? As a middle-class American white woman who has lived with considerable privileges, I’m not even sure how to share all that I have benefited from in my 37 years. But I imagine that even if I am unsuccessful in fully setting a balance among myself and those around me, I ought to be vigilant in voting for programs and researching methods where better balances could be enforced either federally or otherwise. But perhaps I am misreading Paul?

Discussion Questions:

  • What does it mean to strike a “fair balance” between “your present abundance” and “their need”?
  • What do you make of Paul’s sowing and reaping analogy? What is being sown? What is being reaped? What does this have to do with giving?
  • What does it mean to be a “cheerful giver”?

2. Paul’s Fool’s Speech

I found the following scholarship really helpful as I tried to figure out the rhetoric of Paul’s “Fool’s Speech”:

  • Jan Lambrecht’s “The Fool’s Speech and It’s Context: Paul’s Particular Way of Arguing in 2 Cor 10–13.” Biblica, vol. 82, no. 3, 2001, pp. 305–324.
  • Jeffrey M. Horner’s “Leading Like a Fool: An Evaluation of Paul’s Foolishness in 2 Corinthians 11:16–12:13.” Perichoresis, vol. 16, no. 3, 2018, pp. 29–43.

Lambrecht points out that 2 Cor. 10–13 is organized sort of like a bullseye around the Fool’s Speech. She lays out the organization like this, with an outer circle, a middle circle, and inner circle, and the Fool’s Speech in the dead center:

Moral Exhortation (10:1)
               Authority (10:2–18)
                                Denial of Inferiority (11:5–12)
                                                     The Fool’s Speech (11:22–12:10)
                                Denial of Inferiority (12:11, 18)
               Authority (13:1–10)
Moral Exhortation (13:11)

According to Lambrecht, while the Fool’s Speech is full of interruptions, interjections, and digressions, the organization around the Fool’s Speech is impeccable and well crafted. Apparently Paul pulls from a tradition of speaking about himself as if he were someone else (something that the Church’s lesson plan for this week also notes—when Paul says he talking about a friend, he’s talking about himself). But he takes the expectations his audience has about authority, inferiority, and fools and turns the expectations upside-down—it’s in his weaknesses or his foolishness that his strength lies, and those who would call him a fool are the real fools themselves.

Horner’s article provides some thoughtful context about how Paul may have been perceived according to the Greco-Roman aesthetics of the time. Paul had been beaten and had suffered for his faith. While many Latter-day Saints might see this suffering as a sign of strength and endurance, Paul’s battered and weak body may have been read as, in Horner’s terms, “whippable.” Weak. Easily bullied. Horner notes that Paul is described as having been short, bald, “hollow-eyed,” with crooked thighs and a crooked nose. Because physical appearance was often associated with a person’s inherent value, Paul takes the time to establish his authority and deny his inferiority, in spite of his outward appearance. As Horner puts it, “As the apostolic overseer of the Corinthians, Paul needed to defend his authority and did so in an unexpected fashion: by connecting his beaten condition to his claim to leadership for the Corinthian church.”

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So what’s up with the Fool’s Speech? Well, I’m not a scholar of ancient scripture, so I won’t attempt to make claims about the connotation of “fool” to Paul’s audience, but I can’t help but think of the imagery of Paul McCartney’s fool: “alone on a hill . . . The man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud, but nobody ever hears him or the sound he appears to make. . . . He never listens to them; he knows that they’re the fools,” etc. etc. The image of the fool is the image of someone who is isolated, misunderstood, unexpectedly wise but not listened to by those who are ultimately the foolish ones for not listening. Fools are heroic in that they don’t identify as heroes. They are humble, weak.

Horner argues that Paul “uses his identification as a fool to bolster his identification with Christ and to flip the argument around in highlighting God’s use of the weak to shame the strong, which brings Him more glory.”

Discussion Questions:

  • What do you think Paul means by “foolishness”?
  • What do you think Paul means by “boasting”?
  • Paul says, “I repeat, let no one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little” (2 Cor. 11:16). What do you do with this kind of rhetorical shift? Paul tells us not to think of him as a fool, but then asks us to accept him as a fool. Why this paradoxical request?

3. Thorns in the Flesh

Paul says that there is strength in weakness and humility, because it keeps us teachable—it keeps us from being prideful. He says, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure” (2 Cor. 12:7, KJV). No one knows what Paul was alluding to here for sure, though scholars and scriptorians have made their own interpretations (perhaps Paul had bad eyesight or epilepsy or malaria or a speech impediment; perhaps he struggled in his faith or had inappropriate sexual desires or was just frustrated when people wouldn’t accept the gospel). Whatever the case, Paul sees this “thorn” as a necessary element to keep him grounded or humble or something. He seems grateful for it.

Discussion Questions:

  • Why do you think Paul chose this imagery, a “thorn in the flesh”? What kinds of feelings or sensations does this kind of imagery give you?
  • What do you think it means to “glory in your infirmities”? Can you still be trying to overcome your infirmities even while you glory in them?
  • Think about your own challenges that keep you from being the best version of yourself that you think you can be. What do you think it means to try to overcome these challenges while simultaneously glorying in the fact that you have these challenges? Or do you read Paul as saying something different than this interpretation of his words?

Comments

  1. Michael Austin says:

    Wonderful insights. And wonderful Beatles quotes too. I like the three categories that you divide Paul’s lessons into, and it seems to me that they can all be extracted into a single message (or maybe this is just the composition teacher in me looking for a thesis statement). But in each case, Paul seems to be saying something like, “You know that thing that you think is so important (getting lots of money, being really smart, having an awesome bod). Guess what. It’s not as important as you think it is, and if you keep thinking it is so important, you are going to miss everything about the real point.

  2. Grover, thanks for this! Really great insights.

    Also, re: the Fools Speech: I was reading N.T. Wright’s biography on Paul this week, and one thing he points out about this, is that it was common for Greco-Roman “famous” people to celebrate their accomplishments by inscribing them somewhere: consul, proconsul, headed up the waterworks, etc. So basically, leaders were expected to boast in their accomplishments. He also talked about how soldiers, during a siege, would run up to city walls and throw up ladders, which (as Wright points out), is crazy–so “the first person over the wall in an attack (always supposing he survived) could claim as his prize the coveted Corona Muralis, the ‘Wall Crown.'” (p. 314, “Paul: A Biography”).

    So Wright goes on to point out that Paul “boasts of all things,” inverting the “Cursus Honorum” that Corinthians might have been expecting into a “Cursus Pudorum” or “course of shame” (Wright’s invention). Paul even inverts the wall thing: instead of climbing a wall bravely, he clambers over a wall to escape when the going gets tough.

    This, Wright points out, is kind of funny. I thought so too! Thought I’d share. Thanks again for the article.

  3. Oh, I love these comments! Thanks, Mike and Bryan, for your insights and commentary. Bryan, N.T. Wright is a name I’ve had on my list of people to read for a long time, and I’m ashamed that I’ve also read blips of his work typically quoted by others. I am going to pick up a copy of his biography of Paul from your recommendation, because this context is excellent. Thank you again for sharing!

  4. I feel that in these chapters, Paul is struggling with the same thing that Alma was struggling with when trying to wrap his mind around how to feel about the work he was part of. A bunch of good stuff happened, and you were a key participant. It’s tempting to boast. You certainly want to be happy about it. But you know that if not for God, none of it would have happened. So how to express joy, without it being selfish?
    I feel the thorn in the flesh imagery is appropriate. Whatever it is hurts, and you feel that the proper resolution is to remove it; but it’s just not coming out by your own works. Solution? Turn to God. I can see Paul going before the Lord, “Hey it’s me. Mr. Missionary and Epistle writer. I’m doing good. Can you please get rid of this? I know you’re capable of it.” But while many blessings are dependent upon us asking, some things are just meant to not be resolved while in mortality.
    My two year old, walking past a blackberry bush the other day got a thorn in her pants. It hurt, she couldn’t take care of it herself. Luckily for her I was there to assist. Thorns are these foreign objects that grab you, and sometimes don’t let go. Sometimes you can take care of them yourself, sometimes you need assistance.
    So I don’t know if I can glory in the infirmity; but I do hope to not get depressed by their continual existence. As well as rejoice should one of these pesky thorns finally be removed from me.