Scripture text: 2 Corinthians 8:10-15
My preferred English translation of the Bible is the Revised Standard Version. I like it because it is a literal translation. Its English stays close to the Hebrew or Greek text.
Sometimes, however, reading a text in a different translation opens up a text for me that the RSV cannot. That happened recently when I was reading 2 Corinthians 8. In this chapter the apostle Paul urges the Corinthian congregation to be generous to the assistance fund he is collecting for the Christian community in Jerusalem.
He urges them to be generous. At the same time, he recognizes that some of them may not have a lot to give. They are poor. He does not want to create a guilt feeling within them that they must give more than they can. He underscores this point in verse 12, which in the Revised English Bible translation reads: If we give eagerly according to our means, that is acceptable to God; he does not ask for what we do not have.
I stopped in my mental tracks when I read that. I think here Paul is articulating a fundamental principle of the spiritual life, a principle that I wish I had understood much earlier in my life. God does not ask us ever to give up something that we do not possess. For if we do not possess it, we cannot give it up.
It is very important to remember this when we think about Christian asceticism. For example, fasting is an honored spiritual practice in Christian asceticism. But I don’t think God asks the destitute poor to fast. Their very life is a form of fasting, for they do not have enough to eat.
Rather the divine call to fast comes to the rich and affluent. I think the strongest expression of that comes in Isaiah 58, a text often read on Ash Wednesday. It is the rich and well-fed that God calls to give up eating as a way of expressing their solidarity with the poor. The prophet then goes on to link fasting with pursuing social justice for the poor and disadvantaged.
Likewise, who is the one called to go and sell all he has and followed Jesus in poverty? It is the rich young ruler, one who is rich in this world’s goods. Again it is not the poor who are called to do so.
I find it interesting that the two figures in church history who heard this text read in church and took it as a personal call to themselves were both sons of wealthy families. One was the Egyptian hermit, St. Anthony of the Desert. Anthony came from a family of great landed wealth and he grew up in affluence. But he gave it all up when he heard Christ call him to do so.
The other figure is St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family and lived a life of pleasure and dissolution until he heard Christ call him to give it all up.
Both heard the call to poverty by hearing the same text (Mark 10:21) read out in church. Go, sell everything you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.
This same principle—God does not call us to give up something we do not have—applies, I think, to the call to celibacy. Throughout church history, Christians have glorified celibacy. It has been presented as the higher or more spiritual character of life. The impression has often been created that if one opted for married life, one was choosing a more worldly life.
But does God call people to the celibate life if they have not yet come into full acceptance and possession of their sexuality? I think not. If one has repressed and smothered one’s sexuality, one has defaced God’s good gift. And in such a situation, opting for a celibate life can be nothing more than a form of escapism that will ultimately betray a person.
I was recently listening to a CD where the former abbot of a Trappist monastery stated that he had come to the conclusion that no one should enter a monastery until they have reached their 40s. Why? Because they need to have fully claimed their sexuality and accepted it before they opt to give it up.
All that I have said does not mean that God does not call some Christians to a greater ascetical life than other Christians. I do not think Anthony and Francis misperceived God’s call to them.
But we need to be wise about discerning God’s call. Many immature Christians have created great—and needless—anxiety for themselves by assuming that God is calling them to great acts of asceticism because of the superiority of the ascetical life. Our attractions to specific lifestyles can arise from very complex and tangled motives. And I think the Pauline principle expressed in 2 Corinthians 8 needs to be kept as a constant check on thoughts that arise from our neuroticism.