The practice of gift-giving has obviously gotten way out of control for many of us in the Christmas season. I suppose on the upside, it helps the economy and gets more people employed, so that part’s good. But the commercialism and greed, not to mention the sense of heavy obligation (all those relatives!), uncertainty (O God, what am I going to get her this year?), and anxiety (I’ve only got three days left!), take a bit of an edge off of what is supposed to be a good thing: giving to the people we love to show we care for them and want them to know it.
So for me, at least, the principle of gift-giving this time of year is something to be cherished.
It is rooted ultimately in the Christmas story. But there is one aspect of the story – possibly the most significant aspect – that many people have never considered – one that nevertheless lies at its core. At heart it is the story of God’s giving his Son and his Son coming for others – a story that most Christians take very literally and that others of us take as a powerful message, even if metaphorical. But who were these “others” for whom this gift was given?
In the world of Jesus – the broader Roman world in which he was born, raised, ministered, and died – there was, of course, a wide sense of the importance of giving. People gave to their loved ones, their family, their friends, occasionally to their neighbors, and, if they were wealthy, to their communities. These are the people and groups they most cherished, and in that order. There was not much of a practice of giving to yet others, to those one didn’t know, strangers or foreigners. Unless it was seen to be a “smart” thing to do for one’s own benefits.
That was true of governmental spending. The city of Rome itself was one of the very few places in the Empire where the government would give a grain dole every year to its citizens to allow them to be sufficiently fed. (The dole was *not* given to non-citizens; and most people were not citizens.) But the dole was not given out of generosity per se. It was given to keep the wider population relatively content with their lot since, in city of a million people without a police force, widespread starvation was not a good idea so long as civic stability was considered a desideratum.
Rome, though, was an exception. Most places couldn’t afford to take care of their poor (citizens or otherwise) and it was pretty much each person, each family unit, each community for itself. Good luck with that in a world without systems of irrigation, mass-transit, or easy inter-community communication.
On the personal level, throughout the empire, those who could give anything, as a rule, gave to those closest to them. Even the fabulously wealthy. There was almost no idea that a wealthy person should provide significant (or much of any) assistance to the poor, the needy, the homeless, the hungry. At most a rich person might toss a copper to a beggar on the street. But they wouldn’t give much. On the contrary, there were moral arguments against giving much, still found in the surviving writings that have come down to us. Many thought that was not just a waste of money but was borderline obscene. And the idea of giving to one’s enemies (personal or political) was preposterous.
And the Christmas story? It is the message that God gave his son and his son gave himself to those they didn’t know, to help those who were in desperate need. (You say “But God knows everyone”! Fair enough. But keep reading.) The gift did not come to the wealthy: the child was born in poverty. The gift did not come to the powerful: the rulers tried to kill him (and in the end did so). The gift did not come to the religious faithful, the “friends” of God (as they thought). The magi were pagans who didn’t know the God of Israel; the Jewish Scripture scholars who knew the child was to be born in Bethlehem didn’t go to see him, let alone worship him. He was alien to them, by their choice. The shepherds who came to him were outsiders from society and culture, who nonetheless realized what and who had come.
The coming of Christ in the Christmas story is in fact the gift of God to his enemies. To those who have alienated themselves from him. To those who have intentionally and willfully decided to cross him, to disobey him, to ignore him, to curse him, to blaspheme him. They are the ones to whom God sent his Son and for whom the Son agreed to come into the world. Not his “friends” but his enemies. He loved them anyway, and gave himself to them. And at the other end of the story, they are the ones who rejected, humiliated, tortured, and crucified him.
The message of the Christmas is not only that we too should give only to those we cherish — beloved family and friends and community – but also to those who are, at the very least, unknown to us and alien to us. It is for everyone. For the poor, the homeless, the hungry – even if they are strangers, foreigners, and enemies.
This was a radical message in the Roman world. To be sure, it is a message that makes better sense to many people today, as we – unlike people in antiquity – are more open to and more inclined to be concerned for those around the world we don’t know and possibly don’t like, people who are suffering from the ravages of war, poverty, hunger, homelessness, disease, and despair. And when we give to help even these strangers, we are listening to the Christmas message. It is a message worth hearing.
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