The Generosity Cycle, Ancient and Modern (Day 21)

A reading of Philippians 4:10–20, a thank-you letter

In a nutshell: Paul thanks the Philippians for their financial support and assures them that it will such generosity will find its way back to them in the form of blessings from God.

I have learned how to manage in whatever circumstance I find myself. I know how to do with very little and how to handle abundance. I have learned the secret of dealing with circumstances of every kind, with being well fed and being hungry, with having plenty and doing without. I can cope with anything through the one who strengthens me. Nevertheless, it was good of you to become my partners when I was having a hard time.
—Philippians 4:11b–14

New Letter, New Location

Believe it or not, we’re moving on to our last location in our 30-day tour of all things Paul before we hit the big boy (Romans). Philippians, like 2 Corinthians, has been broken into a couple smaller letters by the translators of The Authentic Letters of Paul. If you are working directly with the book, this is a very good occasion to read at minimum their decision-making process about breaking up the letters, pp. 169–73. In my opinion, the translators also make a very strong case to see this as a letter written from Ephesus, where Paul was very likely imprisoned and which he had mentioned in previous letters as a dangerous place for him.

Today we’re looking at a thank you. Paul has received financial support from the Philippians, a marked change from his relationship with other cities, where he vehemently—and in my opinion a bit facetiously—insisted he would take no support (see point #6 under Paul’s assumptions about Jesus.)

Our Day 18 reading of 2 Corinthians 9 also appealed to the cycle of generosity and beneficence, but I didn’t get to say much about that at the time, so let’s talk about it today.

Hunger and GenerosityThe Generosity Cycle

Reading Paul today made me think of the stories my dad used to share about when he was kid, about living with everyday violence and never having a stable home—he was even forgotten once by his family when they moved on to yet another location! (To their credit, his sister did come find him … eventually.) He used to eat white bread with butter and sugar for supper. Even so, my dad is one of those people who gives when he has nothing. He is the epitome of generosity.

We don’t like to talk about social class, growing up poor, but I learned from my dad that when you are poor, giving when you have nothing is absolutely the best survival strategy out there. You always, always share. Next time it may be you who has less. Somebody else, probably also down and out, will share with you what they can. I didn’t grow up as poor as my dad because he and my mom made many, many sacrifices to make sure we had a stable home and food on our plates, but we were still a big family living on little, and our dad made sure we kids learned to be generous with whatever we had. You never know when you’re going to be back at the bottom when you’re only a few rungs above it.

I remember when we were foster parents one birth family had received freshly caught crab from a friend—and they gave the whole thing to me when I visited. Why? Because I was caring for their child, and they wanted to participate in that generosity with what they had.

The cycle of generosity is alive today. The rules are pretty easy to follow as long as you have some sensitivity for others. Try being poor or living with the poor for a while. For instance, generosity extends to food, time, knowledge, and other resources, but not heirlooms or other things with sentimental value—those are taboo to take even if offered. It’s better to give for free than to exchange for somebody’s precious belonging unless the person is rich (comparatively speaking) and insists that they the object is just taking up space and ought to go to someone who will appreciate it.

I suspect that, in the same natural way people with little also refuse to cling to what little they have, Paul was generous with what he had. Rather than seeing him as a missionary, which suggests he was out to convert people to a religion, I try sometimes to imagine him like I do my own dad, who often swapped wisdom with strangers just to be human with them for a little while. I can’t tell you how many times my dad did that and walked away with a gift in his hands from the other person, out of gratitude for “nothing” but his time and wisdom.

I think we have this idea stuck in our heads, based on Acts, that Paul was a wealthy man because we’re told he was a citizen. He might not have been a citizen. Or maybe he was one of those people—they exist today!—who started out well and was crushed economically by some accident or bureaucratic meaninglessness of the system. Either way, we know that in today’s letter he is not only poor but desperately poor, probably in prison.

Is Paul really that different from Jesus? He’s a good letter writer, I’ll give him that. Then again, I know plenty of people who struggle to eat and keep a roof over their heads, but you better believe they pay their phone bills on time. It’s not selfish or short-sighted of them to do so: it’s a survival tool they can’t live without, not because of the fancy apps (they scraped by without that built-in GPS) but because it connects them to all their friends and acquaintances—their support network. In the same way, Paul may have been a letter-writer for survival’s sake.

Questions for the Road

  • Have you ever had to bounce from place to place, job to job, paycheck to paycheck? Have you ever bartered for resources instead of using money? What sorts of connections do you see between those experiences and the sorts of experiences Paul describes in his letters?
  • Do you believe a person as eloquent as Paul could emerge from humble beginnings? Does the existence of Paul’s letters somehow automatically put him in a different social class than Jesus, or does it just reflect different survival tools?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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