to the earth,
"you owe me."
Look what happens
to a love like that,
it lights up the whole
sky. – Hafiz, a Persian(?) poet from the 1300s (ht)
I have been using Luke's gospel as a springboard for researching this paper on consumerism (looking for paradigms in Jesus' attitude toward money and possessions). Something I am finding that I'd never seen before is how much Jesus has to say about the social and economic relations of people. The whole gospel, it seems, he is challenging the social mores that were more or less accepted in his day – he is including the excluded (by healing them, for example), he is eating with all the wrong people (meals were public, and served to reinforce the social order of things).
He also challenges the way gifts are given. Typically in Greco-Roman and Jewish society at the time, a "gift" is given with strings attached, either explicit or implicit. Essentially gifts were given in order to put others in your debt and increase your social standing in the community. It was about power and position. If you gave a gift to someone, after awhile you would be totally justified in saying to them: "You owe me."
But Luke's Jesus turns all that on its head, advising others to "lend, expecting nothing in return" (6:35), "sell your possessions and give to the poor" (12:33), and "when you give a luncheon or dinner, don't invite … your rich neighbors… invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…" (14:12-13). And why? Those rich neighbors will just invite you over sometime to repay you, but if you invite those who cannot repay you, you will be "blessed," – they can't repay you, but God will.
In an economy of exchange, we expect that people will use their wealth to their advantage, either to store it up for themselves, or perhaps use it to gain social status or power. But the economy of the kingdom is completely different: it is a gift economy, where gifts are given freely, no strings attached; where both giver and receiver are aware that God provides for them both; where economic concerns are not abstracted from other community concerns; where resource is given freely, especially to those who cannot repay, trusting that as we do so we are storing up treasure in heaven, where God repays lavishly (6:38).
The kingdom of God is an economy where gifts are given without any thought of "You owe me." Perhaps a community like that could light up a city the same way the sun lights up the sky.
Good thoughts, Ben. When someone does something nice for me, a gift, I say, ‘thank you,’ and don’t make a big fuss, as I see the giving of gifts as part of living as a kingdom community…something which happens organically. However, there are times when I will give someone a gift just because there is a sharing of joy when I can bless someone with an unexpected tangible thing. Where I get hung-up is when, a couple days later, the ‘gift receiver’ gives me something in return. I often wonder if they saw my gift as something now requiring a ‘re-payment’. I sometimes refer to these reciprocal gifts as, ‘guilt gifts.’ I often feel like my gift, which was meant to be received with joy, was received with strings attached when there were none. I know we teach our kids to say, ‘thank you,’ to instill thankfulness and appreciation, but are we also instilling guilt? Maybe when someone gives me a reciprocal gift, I should also see it as no-strings-attached? Ah, what tension…