In Philippians 4:10-20, Paul clarifies the issue of handling money and gifts with the Philippian church. Admittedly it is as difficult today as it was in Paul's day. How did Paul handle this issue? A casual reading of this passage may give the impression that Paul was not grateful for the Philippians' gift. Some scholars even went as far as to accuse Paul of writing a "thankless thanks" note. If Paul was truly grateful, they argued, why did he delay this 'thank-you' to the end of his letter. Others noted that Paul never used the Greek work for thanks in relation to the Philippians' gift. Perhaps the closest he came to say, "thank-you" was found in verse 18: "I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God."
Other scholars, however, would disagree. They argued that we must not read out 21st century ideal of thanks into Paul's 1st century Greco-Roman world. In other words, what 4:10-20 reveals to us is that our idea of thanks is different from that of the first century. Our customs are different in part because our social arrangements are not based on their complex structure of hierarchies including the social order of slave and master. Paul's so called 'ingratitude' should be read in the context of his relationship with the Philippians. It was one of partnership rather than patronage where the Philippian church does not hold Paul responsible to meet certain criteria as conditions for their gifts. On the other hand, Paul can be very direct in his dealings with them without fear of losing their financial help. Their partnership rested on the common understanding that their gifts to Paul were really gifts to God (4:18). As such, it makes sense that Paul cannot reciprocate, because the gifts were not meant for him to begin with. It was not 'his' money but God's. Paul's situation is not far from ours today. We face this matter of giving and receiving on two levels.
On a personal level, there are some who struggle to accept any gift because they feel it will tie them to the giver. We all have received gifts with string attached. Paul's teaching here takes issue with this form of giving, for it puts the giver in a position of power over the recipient. Others struggle to give because they worry that there will not be enough left for themselves.
Here, the Philippians set a model of giving freely no matter what one's circumstances might be. Their poverty did not hold them back; on the contrary, it seemed to encourage them all the more to give (see 2 Cor. 8:1-3). Today a similar phenomenon seems to hold true - those who make an average income tend to give a higher percentage to their churches than the wealthy. Yet sadly we also hear today in our churches this sentiment, "I want to make lots of money so I can give more to the church."
Paul's teaching reminds us that giving is a habitual mindset and not something to be delayed until one has 'enough' to give. The Philippians did not wait until they have enough to give. Their giving was spontaneous and generous in spite of their dire situation.
On a corporate level, some churches follow the 'golden rule', that those who have the gold make the rules! But Paul here reveals that the Philippian church in their support of his ministry did not control his ministry, teachings or actions. On his part, Paul did not feel threatened that his forthright warnings and corrections of their situation might jeopardize his financial support.
Let us learn from Paul's handling of money and gifts by viewing them as a spiritual worship. Our giving is an act of service and "a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God". In this way we are all bought into God's presence and with sacrifices pleasing to Him whether we are ministers like Paul or supporters like the Philippians.
Rev. Mark Tay