The Danger of Giving
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 2:8-20
“Lo, I have come to do thy will.” — Hebrews 10:7; Psalm 40:7
The danger of giving is that it will displace and spoil receiving, and receiving is far more important than giving. High on the list of things that make Christmas time miserable, or at least anxious, is the giving and receiving of gifts. We all know the stress and strain of reciprocity. We all know how easy it is for rivalry to infect the exchange of gifts. There is a reason why in the German language the word Gift means poison! Ours is a Germanic language and it would be instructive to find out how our word for gift became their word for poison or vice versa. In any case this fact suggests that gift – giving can be bad for your health; apart from the physical and financial stress it creates. My hope for this sermon is that it will help you to balance giving and receiving, by accepting God’s offer of a peerless gift for which there can be no reciprocity. Our only option is to receive the peerless gift of grace in a little boy put into our arms, the original Christmas gift. Receiving is more important than giving.
The exchange of gifts used to be a key category for interpreting society and culture in the anthropology of the 19th and 20th centuries, and is associated especially with the name of a French anthropologist Marcel Mauss. He argued that reciprocity of goods is the cement of society, expressing a solidarity and goodwill that binds. However, when we look at what in particular traditional societies exchanged we are surprised into second thoughts about the benignity of the bestowal of gifts. Prominent among the items were women and corpses, items that not even Neiman Marcus would get for you today.
We need not take much time here to understand the significance of these erstwhile favorite gifts – they had something to do with making strangers do what we could not do ourselves, handle our living sisters and bury our dead parents. We can see something of the challenge it is to wash the naked corpse of your father or mother (call the undertaker!) or live too long with your sister, but to see this is not to see all. There is something more fundamental than the psychological at stake; gift exchange might be a symptom from a deeper level of exchange where the things given and received are blows, and from where the building forces of culture and society are generated. Revenge is such an exchange, a tit for tat, and part of the anxiety of gift giving probably stems from the vestige of vengeance behind the form of exchange. The end of revenge is when one party receives and does not reciprocate, takes the blow and eats the shame. This is called forgiveness and it is what God did on the Cross; He endured the pain, despised the shame and did not retaliate (Hebrews 12:2).
Ever since the Trojans accepted a wooden horse from the Greeks the more literate members of our culture have or should have appreciated the danger of receiving gifts, especially from Greeks (“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”). But the danger of giving gifts is greater. It so easily becomes a way of humiliating the receiver and exalting the self. Why do you think so many beneficiaries of US generosity hate us? Our largesse exalts us and humiliates them. Don’t you think that allowing them to do something for us, showing them that we really need them would improve the relationship?
Clearly we have stumbled onto a vast topic and must stop here. Please forgive the brevity of the treatment. I hope however, that I have said enough to show the problem. Now let me try to point the way to a solution, not I but the Spirit through the Word.
Our scripture from the Letter to the Hebrews might be summed up as, “It is more blessed to receive than to give,” and I believe that even at the superficial level this epigram can help tame the escalation to the extreme of competitive gift giving. But there is a deeper level to which it points where the decisive power to cope is lodged, a level where we see the necessity of having to receive the gift of God himself in our very flesh, a gift we might refuse, but will be given anyway, whether we want it or not.
The passage tells of centuries of gift giving to God, which is called sacrifice. Oceans of blood, mountains of bulls and goats, not to mention first born sons and virgin daughters, have been given as gifts to God and the gods, and it was all for nothing, a waste of lives and time, because the one true God does not want sacrifices and the other gods are only figments of our own violent imaginations and symbols of our fear of ourselves.
Putting the (Septuagint) Greek version of Psalm 40:6-8 into the mouth of Jesus, our text has Jesus tell us,
“Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
But a body hast thou prepared for me;
In burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’
as it is written of me in the roll of the book (Heb. 10:5-7).”
The punch line is: Christmas is first and foremost the time to receive, because God is giving us this overwhelming gift of Himself in our flesh. He is giving us everything we have ever hoped for. We’ve been trying to bribe God. We’ve been substituting our gifts for ourselves, and thus keeping God at arms length. We have made our gifts not the symbols of our self but a substitute for ourselves. Now is the time to receive.
It would have been infinitely more telling for him if the innkeeper had let the teenager in labor use his best room; it was not nothing that he gave them a manger, but think of what he missed by being blind to the gift that was knocking at his door and begging to be received. God is still begging to be received, and we are still missing the point by giving God the stable at the back rather than the bridal suite of our empty lives. Because we cannot really receive (Are we too proud?) we miss the fullness of the only gift there is, now banging at the door and begging to be received, the gift that is God Himself, the gift that is grace.
So relax and receive. Trust the giver, he is no Greek with a wooden horse to give you. He is you creator and your lover. We descendents of the Puritans are so eager to be doing and contributing that we risk not relaxing enough to receive. Let’s be different this year, let’s be careful to receive gracefully, let us receive God humbly and with thanks. When we do this we will find that the gift includes the task. German says this nicely; the word for Gift is Gabe and the word for task is Aufgabe. In this tight epigram we say that when we pick up the gift we receive also the task -Die Gabe und die Aufgabe. And the task is: “Lo I come to do your will O God.”
As Jesus says, quoting the Hebrew Bible, “You do not want sacrifices, that is, gifts from us, O God. What you want is for me to do your will, so here in this body that you have prepared for me I will do your will.” To be sure this is a crude way of describing the Incarnation of God, but we get the point. “Stop offering me gifts, and start receiving the gift I offer you you. I am entering your bodily substance to renew my creation from within and to give you all eternal life, invincible joy, and the peace that passes human understanding.” “Yes Lord, thank you!”
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts, the blessing of his heaven
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek hearts will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
— Philips Brookes.