Except for that dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus, the actual connections between Paul and Jesus aren’t all that clear.
Certainly this earliest of our Christian writers heard first-hand the oral traditions about what Jesus did and what he preached and taught – oral traditions that were finally put down in writing and then edited – selecting, shaping and arranging the stories so that the leaders of the church could determine what would and wouldn’t be our New Testament.
But exactly which ones Paul heard and used for his own preaching, teaching and writing is hard to determine.
But it is clear that Paul did get the point: that in and through this Jesus – who lived, died and was resurrected – God had been decisively and truthfully revealed as the divine being and the divine action, so that God’s human creatures could again become the image of God in their being and action.
Paul got the point that in God’s own freedom God chose to be faithful to God’s own nature in God’s actions toward the creation.
God chose and chooses to be an abundantly generous lover, even toward human creatures who, in their own freedom, had chosen and who choose to mar the divine image they were given through their unloving actions.
So even though we can’t pinpoint where Paul got this focus from the stories he heard about Jesus, the point shows up all over his writings to the young churches.
In one of the half-dozen letters collected in what the church called 2 Corinthians, for example, Paul puts it this way:
“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 own mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).
He then references the psalmist (Psalm 112:9) about those who get the point – the human beings, that is, who honor who God is essentially (the abundant lover) by following, with their actions, God’s commandments and God’s actions: they scatter their generosity broadly and they give to the poor.
This is the way, Paul writes pointedly, of being freely obedient “to the confession of the Gospel of Christ” (2 Corinthians 9:13).
Paul’s letter, it needs to be admitted, is directed to Christians in Corinth, but there’s no doubt that he meant it for all Christians everywhere and at all times.
More than that: Paul is making here a universal claim about who God is and what God does – decisively and truthfully revealed in Jesus the Anointed – and how that applies to all of God’s human creatures.
What he is suggesting is that you can freely choose to believe in a God “who sows sparingly,” in which case you will likely sow miserly, and like your ungenerous God you will also reap sparingly.
Or you can freely choose to have faith in a God who sows bountifully, in which case you will also sow generously, and like your bountiful God you will also reap bountifully.
The point is that you really can’t say you believe in a God of generosity and then be ungenerous yourself.
That wouldn’t be just un-Christian; it would be, according to any broad-based standard, hypocritical, deceitful and lacking in integrity.
Which brings us to the point of asking: In a nation and a world of increasing inequality – with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer – are we getting the point?
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.