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Gifts to the Needy

December 20, 2006

God “scatters abroad” and “gives to the poor” (2 Corinthians 9:9). So should we. Let’s return for a moment to Christmas giving. I described it earlier as a feast of mutual delight in exchange of gifts within the circle of family or friends. But there is something very one-sided about celebrating Christmas only by ritually enacting a community of joyous giving and receiving. Though such a loving community is an earthly good on par with any other, in a world of massive and unrelenting need, it’s positively sinful for such communities to remain turned inward. The gifts should not just circulate within the community to delight its members. They should also flow to outsiders to alleviate their needs.

Consider the true gift we celebrate at Christmas, God’s advent into the world. Here is how the apostle Paul told the story of Christmas: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The Son of God did not dwell among humans just to open our vista onto the circle of blissful exchanges within the Godhead. He divested himself of heavenly wealth and became an impoverished child so the fragile flesh of humanity could be taken up into God’s embrace. The circle of the Eternal Intimates opened up, and gifts traversed its boundaries to reach those in need. Our gifts shouldn’t just travel on a two-way street so givers and receivers can delight in one another; they should travel on a one-way street so that the needy may be helped, being imparted to those who may not be able to give in return.

At Christmas we should celebrate two kinds of gift giving, not just one. Christmas should be a feast of reciprocal giving in a circle of intimates, a provisional enactment of the advent of God’s future world. But it should also be a feast of giving to those outside the circle, a small contribution helping to align the world of sin and need with the coming world of love. The advent of the light into the darkness of the world is not the goal; it is part of the movement toward the goal. At Christmas we celebrate this movement. Gifts should therefore chiefly flow out to the needy; they shouldn’t largely circulate among friends.

Like God, we should give to the needy without any distinction – to stranger and to kin, to undeserving and deserving. Where the needy come from, what the colour of their skin is, or how they behave doesn’t matter. Their needs matter, as do their incapacities (though if they are able but unwilling to tend to their own needs, they are illicit takers, not legitimate recipients). It is sometimes hard to decide what exactly constitutes a need. For instance, a need in one place (a wealthy Western nation) may be opulence in another (in sub-Saharan Africa ). Different givers may assess a need differently. But whatever the assessment ends up being, when the need is present, a gift should be given, irrespective of whose need it is.

You will recall that in Nathan the Wise, Sultan Saladin sought to enlist Al-Hafi, an ascetic and therefore a beggar, as his treasurer, because only a beggar knows how to give to beggars appropriately. To persuade Al-Hafi and to let him know what he expected of him, Saladin disparaged his predecessor: “He gave so ungraciously when he gave; first inquired so vehemently into the situation of the receiver; never satisfied that he was lacking, also wanted to know the cause of the lack, in order to measure the cause stingily against the offering”.

For a giver, every need is in a sense like any other need, and the mere fact of its existence is a sufficient reason for attending to it. Only ungracious and reluctant givers inspect the causes of a need and dole out the benefits in proportion to its legitimacy.

Some needy recipients may prove unworthy. They may be ungrateful, they may squander gifts irresponsibly before their genuine need is satisfied, and they may greedily refuse to pass even a crumb from their table to neighbours in more dire need. They clearly need to learn how to both receive and give – though probably not from those who give to them, lest the givers prove to be reluctant and arrogant, and therefore bad givers. Yet if recipients are in need, gifts should be given. Need is the only justification a gift requires.