Saturday, October 4, 2014

Giving Graciously

One should give gifts, compliments and hospitality generously.  This, I suspect, is the beginning of moving beyond yourself.  One may also receive gifts, compliments and hospitality graciously.  This is an exercise in humility and is one I've had opportunity to practice repeatedly.  This is a less-taught, but widely reinforced social notion.  It's also an act of moving beyond the self, in that your self-sufficiency is sidelined in order to allow another to give of themselves.  I suspect the lesser-known cousin of these interconnected virtues is gracious giving.  

Giving, especially that which is extravagant or cannot be reciprocated, serves not only to humble the receiver, but to highlight social difference.  In itself, this has the potential to form strong bonds between people.  Take the example of child and parent - no child can ever begin to repay their parent for the sacrifice and generosity they have received.  In fact, to suggest they can would be tantamount to a break in relationship. I am indebted to David Graeber for this idea (Debt: The First 5000 Years).  And the examples abound of inequality rightly being a foundational prerequisite to kinship.  However, when the relationships are not akin to standard kinship lines, such as in direct peers, the exchange is different.  
If the unequal, extravagant giving/receiving is not accompanied by an equally deep relationship that is embraced by both parties, the effect is to highlight social or economic difference.  It may even be an insensitive show of power that humiliates the receiver, and may even lead to a break in relations.  
The girl refuses to receive a gift from a suitor, because she believes some strings may be attached.  The friend blanches at the generous offer, but receives it and feels eternally uncomfortable and indebted.  The recipient of charity hangs head, accepts what they know they cannot provide for their family, and tries to look thankful.  Saving face is impossible.

To sum, it is as incumbent on the giver to be gracious (or even restrained) as it is for the recipient to show gratitude.  That this is not discussed may be symptomatic of the fact that those on receiving end cannot allow themselves to even verbalize their reactions, should they be seen as ingrates. That we so strongly expect expressions of gratitude and even an attitude of humility on the part of recipients is telling; we are, to some degree, intentionally making a show of position and expect that others should recognize it.

Truly, the children of God have received the greatest gift, that of adoption into His family.  And for that we are eternally grateful and it draws us to Him.  In 1 John, we are told that the proper response to this great and unrepayable love of God is to love others and obey God's will.  "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are...We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?"  (1 Jn 3)   We are to help those in need, but as one that lays down their lives; this entails a complete surrender of future benefit or gratitude, of social recognition or even the chance to feel good about yourself after.  James also addresses the matter in James 2.  Inasmuch as he exhorts believers not to show partiality to those who are better dressed, the implicit expectation should also be that the believer also dress modestly so as not to encourage others to partiality and to show off to those less suave.  It is not just that we refrain from judgement, but that we do what we can to keep others from judgement as well.  Paul encouraged the Romans to abstain from causing others to stumble by eating meat sacrificed to idols (despite their freedom to do so); however, those he calls 'stronger' are not to respond by drawing away from the 'weaker'.  Rather, they are to build relationships with the 'weaker', all in the name pursuing peace and the ensuing unity of the body it brings: "16 So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. 19 Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding." 

I suspect the only thing preventing this being applied universally is pride on the part of givers.  That we desire to give what we want, when we want, and how we want -- generosity on our terms -- is a consequence of the self-confidence and self-sufficiency we have because of our considerable ability to buy and spend.  If we can be thoughtless and careless consumers of goods, so too can we be thoughtless consumers of the personal benefits of philanthropy and hospitality.  "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  (Matt 5) Even those acting in love may be prone to insensitivity.

Let us give generously and graciously.  Let us give in knowledge of the utterly undeserved ability to give we have.  Let us mutually "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21).  

No comments:

Post a Comment