St. Paul had many roles: apostle, evangelist, pastor, theologian, persecutor-turned-believer. But there’s another role that doesn’t often get much attention: servant of the poor. He took on that title when some believers from Jerusalem visited him and Barnabas in Antioch. One of the visitors, a man named Agabus, made a prophecy. He “predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine all over the world” (Acts 11:28).
Concerned for the Jewish-Christian church in Jerusalem—which was already struggling with poverty—the elders in the Antioch church, which included many Gentile Christians, decided to take up a collection among the other churches to help out. They then commissioned Paul and Barnabas to visit these churches to collect the donations and bring them back to Jerusalem.
As he did with everything else, Paul saw this collection as an opportunity to serve. It was also an opportunity for the believers to experience more deeply what it meant to belong to Jesus and to his people. By taking up a collection for the church in Jerusalem, believers around the world would be able to unite themselves with each other as one body in Christ.
By exhorting his readers about the gift of generosity, Paul has also given us a lesson in what it means to love and serve one another as Jesus has loved and served us. Even the most mundane acts of service we do—such as making a donation to support the poor or cooking dinner for our families—have immense spiritual value. It is our way of offering back to God the gifts he has given us—because everything we are and everything we have come from him.
This “Gracious Act.” For the most part, Paul’s efforts to care for the Jerusalem community were successful. Church after church agreed to set aside some money every Sunday at their Eucharistic service and to give that money to Paul when he arrived. But Paul was not so successful in Corinth. The believers there had begun well, but then mistrust crept in. So they halted the collection.
Paul recognized that the Corinthians were sincere believers and that even if they had become misguided, they were trying to live out their faith. So he reminded them of all God had given them and added his plea: “May you excel in this gracious act also” (2 Corinthians 8:7). Then again he reminded them, “You know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (8:9).
Paul used the same Greek word, charis, to describe both their monetary contribution and Jesus’ self-giving death on the cross. He told them that this wasn’t just a financial issue. It was a spiritual issue. It was an opportunity for the people in Corinth to serve their brothers and sisters in Christ. It was also an opportunity for them to unite themselves more closely to the Lord. By donating to the church in Jerusalem, they would be giving of themselves to lift other people up—just as Jesus did on the cross.
It’s not often that we think of something like monetary contributions in such spiritual terms. Because so much of our life is focused on financial transactions, we might think of charitable donations or donations to our church in a similar functional way—we give money as a sort of salary to our pastor and to pay for the various ministries in our parish. That may be true, but there is also a spiritual aspect to it, and to any service that we do—any “gracious act.”
From Our Hearts. Once, when Jesus was having dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees, his host noticed that he did not perform the ritual washing of his hands before the meal. Detecting the man’s sense of scandal, Jesus turned the tables on him. “Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish,” he said, “inside you are filled with plunder and evil” (Luke 11:39). He knew that this Pharisee, while faithful to the external rules of the Law of Moses, was not living that Law in his heart. So he addressed the man’s heart: “As to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you” (11:41).
This was the real difference between Jesus and the Pharisee. Both of them probably made offerings for the poor—it was every Jew’s obligation. But Jesus could tell that his host was more concerned with Jesus’ ritual observations than with his own heart. The Pharisee may have been giving money, but he was not truly giving alms. He wasn’t giving from his heart. He wasn’t sacrificing out of love for God and his beloved poor.
Whether we are serving someone who is ill or giving to someone in need, Jesus wants us to give from the heart. He wants us to serve as he served—not out of obligation or routine, but out of love.
Jesus’ words to this Pharisee are like St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians. Through generous, free, and heartfelt giving, we offer our own “gracious acts” of loving service to people in need. And when we do, we unite ourselves to Jesus.
A Living Sacrifice. At every Sunday Mass, there is an Offertory procession, when we offer the bread and wine that will be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Along with this bread and wine, we also offer the money from the collection. The priest, after blessing the offering, invites us to pray that “my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God.”
That “sacrifice” is not just the bread and wine. It includes everything we have just presented, along with everything that our offering represents. The Offertory is our opportunity to join all the sacrifices of our lives—the collection and every sacrifice we make in the name of the Lord—to the bread and wine. It’s our opportunity to place our very lives on the altar and offer them to God as a “living sacrifice,” just as Jesus did (Romans 12:1).
Keep this in mind when you are at Mass. At the presentation of the gifts, remember that you are an integral part of the celebration because you are an integral part of the sacrifice. Then, when you receive Jesus in Communion, know that you are also receiving your own life back—only transformed, filled, and blessed by the Holy Spirit. You have offered him your treasure, your heart, your mind, and your life, and he has accepted it and blessed it, so that you can go out to love and serve him and the people around you.
Scripture urges us, “Give to the Most High as he has given to you, generously, according to your means. For he is a God who always repays and will give back to you sevenfold” (Sirach 35:12-13). This is so much more than a simple transaction. This is an act of love and service that God accepts and transforms. This is no less than a divine exchange!
It All Matters. As followers of Jesus, we serve in countless ways. Know that the Lord is pleased with all that you do for others. Know also that each act of service, no matter how insignificant it might seem to you, has spiritual significance in the eyes of the Lord. Through acts of service, you offer yourself to God. You give back to him what he has given to you. You unite yourself to the Lord and to the people you serve.
Know also that God loves it when you give to people from the heart, whether it be your money, your time, your forgiveness, your prayers, your companionship, or your understanding and compassion. He loves it when you reach out to the hurting and the anxious with the peace he has given you.
Every Christian is called to a life of service because every Christian is called to follow in the footsteps of his Master. That is the blessed life we lead. May we all become servants after the heart of Jesus.
Jesus’ Teaching on Service
Matthew 25:40 Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.
John 12:26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.
Mark 10:45 The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Luke 6:38 Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.
Matthew 25:21 Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.
Matthew 23:11 The greatest among you must be your servant.
Mark 12:43, 44 Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the others . . . . For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had.