A two-word phrase Paul inserts in his letter to the Corinthians is so brief as to go almost unnoticed, but it opens onto a truth at the heart of the Gospel. That phrase — “gracious act.”
The first time he uses it, he is referring to the generosity of the Corinthians in helping the Christians in another city who had come on hard times. “As you excel in so many other things, like your faith and perseverance, l’m asking you to excel in this gracious, your giving.”
But when he uses the phrase a second time, he touches down not only on the preeminent example of selfless action (the life of The Lord Jesus) but Paul is also referring to the underlying Source of all this large-heartedness, God’s gift of his own Self to us in His Son. His way of speaking about this primal gracious act, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” All of this meaning is condensed into the expression “gracious act,” the action that is other-centered, that entails sacrifice for the good of the neighbor.
Might this two-word phrase be a shorthand formula for every Christian’s life of discipleship? It might for instance stand for the very one with which Paul is challenging his Corinthians –giving from one’s relative surplus to those who are a good deal more in need.
Setting his challenge in more contemporary terms, it could mean paying active and effective attention to the ever-expanding disparity in incomes, especially here in our own country. An indication of this is the marked way in which the salary ratio between upper-level executives and the average worker has so drastically expanded (even exploded) over just the last decade. More than gracious acts I individually might do, the expression can also refer to the gracious corporate and governmental policy measures taken by a country to reduce that scandalous income gap.
In that wider societal context, we listen to Paul’s other words: “As a matter of equality, your abundance at the present time should supply their needs – that their abundance may also supply your needs when you come on hard times.”
Paul’s “gracious acts” can apply not just to individuals helping individuals, but to the whole way the economy is to be structured to be more just across the entire citizenry. Adding his voice to this is our own St. Vincent who in a 1640 letter to one of his priests took this position: “There is no act of charity that is not accompanied by justice...” (Volume 2, p. 68)
Paul sets down the principle, “That there may be equality,” and finishes with a flourish from the Scriptures,
“Whoever had much, did not have more.
And whoever had little, did not have less.”
In the Eucharist we all share in The Gracious Act, Our Lord’s pouring out his whole life for each of us. May the immeasurable bounty of this sacrifice spill over into actions that bring God’s love more fully into all our lives.