Gifts And Giving
We come together this morning, some from near, some from further afield, bearing gifts. Unlike the Kings of the Orient, none of us came riding upon camels. No star was required to guide us, for we came in daylight and we knew the way. Though I suspect none of us would claim royal blood, and the gifts we bore were not specifically for a new born child, we trust that children will be among the beneficiaries. The gifts today are not paid in homage, but donated in humility. Humility because we acknowledge that though we are aware of our own needs, our offerings recognise that there are others whose needs are greater still.
This annual gift service illustrates one of my favourite biblical texts, from the book of James, “What does it profit if a man says he has faith, but not works?” It is an occasion which links a philosophy with practical application; a spiritual conviction with the needs of other members of the community.
Being asked to lead this service prompted thoughts, which I would like to share with you for a few minutes this morning. The thoughts were about gifts and giving.
When a speaker or preacher wishes to expand upon a subject, he or she will frequently turn to the dictionary as a starting point. So that is what I did. Not surprisingly, for a great many of the everyday words we use have different meanings in different contexts, there was variety of definitions and examples of usage given. I’ll turn to some of them in a minute.
I suspect that I am not the only one here who regularly receives offers to shower me with gifts. The offers normally come by post or delivered through leaflet. All that is required of me is to buy double glazing, an insurance policy, introduce a friend to the Automobile Association, and I can select my free gift, (FREE is always printed in bold type and underlined) from a range of commodities, most of which I either have already, or, if not, in which I have no interest. Holidays to exotic places in the sun, a new car, or free groceries for a year could be mine should I enter the FREE draw and hold the lucky number. A handsome pen in a presentation box will be my reward should I order a year’s supply of some monthly magazine.
No surprise then that near the top of the list of meanings in my dictionary, the word bribery appeared. The boundaries between bribery, inducement, reward and freewill-giving become indistinct. Is the offer to give one tin of beans free provided two are purchased first an act of generosity, or a cynical ploy, designed to deceive?
It is a moot point perhaps whether something given with the expectation that payment in cash, kind or service will be received in return, is truly a gift. The sacrifice of a sprat in the hope that a mackerel will be hooked questions the motive of the donor.
We like to think that it is ever out of altruism, with a sense of love that seeks no other recompense than joy expressed in the face of the receiver, that we give our gifts. Indeed, that is sometimes the case. But not always.
A few months ago, papers were full of the news of the visit by the Queen to the Pope. There was an account in the media of the gifts they had exchanged, accompanied by pictures and detailed descriptions. If I recall aright, there was a valuable mediaeval painting and a beautiful, and equally valuable, early print book exchanged. The thought struck me that the selection of gifts was carefully done, as much to reflect well on the donor and the realm represented, as it was to please the recipient.
If we are truthful with ourselves, many of us, from time to time, succumb to the temptation of what I might call “status enhancing giving”. How many Christmas, birthday, wedding presents are selected with at least half an eye on how the light reflects on the us, rather than to satisfy the desires of the receiver. The attics of the land groan under the weight of Great Aunt Maisie’s unappreciated wedding presents. The child plays with the cheap toy, the expensive present soon discarded, to the disappointment of the parent or doting uncle.
Gifts should be given in love, bringing joy to the beneficiary, treasured for what they represent. The giver wishing only to please, not necessarily to be thanked. Thanks are welcome most when spontaneous and genuine. Some gifts, like those this morning, are anonymous in the sense that those benefiting are not personally known to us. We give to help, to ease, lighten a burden, to share our own good fortune. St. Ignatius Loyala prayed “…to give and not count the cost ….to ask for no reward”, thus describing the essential elements surrounding a true gift.
At the end of the last war millions of refugees and displaced persons were to be found in camps across Europe. Appeals were launched to enable these homeless people to be re-integrated into families, housed in permanent homes. Some-one, whose name I have long forgotten, wrote a letter to what was then the Manchester Guardian newspaper. It may be he with-held his name, I cannot remember. The wording of the letter went something like this.
“In days gone by, from time to time as the affluent rider rode by on his horse, he was touched by the sight of a beggar by the roadside. Acting on sudden impulse, and moved by the beggar’s plight, he generously, recklessly, tossed the mendicant his purse of gold coins. I have no horse. I travel by bus. I’m not a rich man,” the letter went on, “but I am touched by the plight of these refugees. I put my small coins in the collecting box on flag days, but I feel something more is needed to help these desperate souls. Something akin to the reckless giving of the purse of gold coins. I shall give £10 which I can hardly afford, and ask that others show the same reckless generosity.”
When the letter was published in those early post-war years, £10 was more than an average weekly wage, worth maybe £200 or more in today’s money. A great many people were inspired by the letter, and became equally generous, or reckless, take your choice. By no means are gifts always given in a calculated self-serving manner.
Today, as in yester-year, the capacity of so many to freely give of their goods, cash and time to help others is both astonishing and heart-warming. Help the Children, Famine Relief, aid to flood victims, to medical charities, to organisations working with the sick and poor, or the elderly and the disabled both in this country and internationally, continue to benefit from the generosity of so many who want to help in cash and kind.
My concern is that the word gift has become devalued, as commercial interests have hi-jacked it. Perhaps we need a new word to identify with the spirit Jesus must have had in mind when he narrated the story of the Samaritan. Perhaps corporate advertisers will move on with new descriptions, and we can reclaim our word. Though a cliché, it remains the case that Christmas giving is each year driven by more and more by commercially led advertising, and less and less by the simple wish to share with others. The rich endow an institution so that their name shall hit the headlines, or be immortalised in the name of a building or foundation. A generous gift tainted by a selfish motive.
Another prominent meaning given to gift in my dictionary referred to having a particular skill or aptitude – to a facility in say art or music, literature or drama. It refers to an ability beyond the normal. A talent, biblical translators in past years described it. But then if one links a talent with the word “gift”, surely the implication is that in exercising that talent one should give pleasure, gratitude even, to others. Glorying in one’s own cleverness fits ill with the concept of a gift. Using what handiness or expertise one may possess to assist others, or to share one’s joy with fellow men and women, gives legitimacy to describing a talent as a gift.
A less common use of the expression “gift” is in the sense of having the power to make a decision which will affect another, or several others. If something is said to be in your gift, the decision is yours. The bestowing of an honour, a job, a position may be within the gift of a sovereign, a prime minister, a church dignitary or whoever. Though none of us here have such power – at least I don’t know that any one of us has – we all can and do give presents of one kind or another.
The essence of a gift is giving something of one’s own to enhance the life of another. This may be goods or possessions, some form of service, time even, or perhaps understanding and sympathy. It is given with love, it brings happiness to the receiver, nothing is asked, either explicitly or implicitly in return. It is a Christian act fulfilling the second great commandment of loving one’s neighbour. A gift offered conditionally, with the expectation of reward, ceases to become a gift.
One final thought. The refrain of a harvest hymn runs through my mind.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above
Then thank the lord, O thank the lord
For all his love
Many of us who believe in God accept that we are surrounded by the beneficence of a loving creator, not simply at harvest time, but throughout our lives. Not the least of those marvels resulting from that beneficence, is life itself. The gift is unconditional; not a bribe, not a payment in kind, not an inducement in the hope that some benefit will follow. The purse of gold was thrown without calculation.
I spoke at the beginning of James’ comment on the link between faith and works. Unless we uphold the purity of the definition of giving, not counting the cost or seeking reward, then the works fail to match the faith professed.
Our gift service should be an expression of faith in works, or it will be little better than another misnamed free offer, as we wonder what is in it for us.
C.J. Rosling 9 December 2000
Hucklow December 2000