Contributed by Paul Baglyos, St. Paul, MN
When is a gift not really a gift?
What’s a Gift?
Recently, a woman addressed the following question and comments to an advice column: “How can I get my significant other to be fair to my kids at Christmas? He always makes sure his kid gets really nice stuff and then he will get something really expensive for himself. But my kids and me? For example, last year he got his 10-year-old daughter an iPod Touch that cost $300, but my kids got $50 gift certificates. Then he bought something for his guitar that costs over $400, and I got nothing. This really bothers me.”
Implicit in the woman’s question and comments is the popular sense that the value of a gift is determined by its monetary cost and that gift-giving should exemplify fairness and equity. In that regard, gifts and gift-giving lose all character of grace and instead become matters of obligation.
- Imagine the larger story behind the woman’s question and comments. What do you suppose the man might say in response to the woman? What do you suppose his daughter and her kids might say to each other, or about each other, after they have opened their gifts at Christmas?
- Is the man being selfish and cheap? Is the woman being too demanding?
- The response to the woman published in the advice column included this opinion: “We don’t think this guy sounds like significant other material.” Do you agree with that opinion? Why, or why not?
Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 19, 2010 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
Quite a lot was expected of Joseph. He was told to assume responsibility for his pregnant wife-to-be, and for the unborn child conceived in her womb, even though the child was not his own. Joseph’s plan “to dismiss [Mary] quietly” was reasonable and fair; after all, her pregnancy might be regarded as a breach of pre-marital trust between them, releasing him from all further obligations. The angel’s instruction to Joseph, however, required him to surrender all reasonable claims to fairness and to act with a generosity that exceeded obligation.
God, too, acts with a generosity that exceeds obligation. God’s Christmas gift to the world, the gift of Jesus the Messiah, demonstrates sheer grace on the part of God. The gift is neither owed nor deserved; it cannot be demanded and it cannot be priced. God’s generosity is described in this well-known verse from the Gospel according to John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
- What is the difference between grace and obligation?
- Think about a time you received a gift you did not deserve–or felt coerced into giving a gift by the demands or expectations of others? How does the contrast between grace and obligation change the character of “gift”?
- Why does it seem easier to understand obligation than to understand grace?
- How do Christians understand life in relation to God’s grace? How do Christians demonstrate grace in relation to others?
- In what ways might the church become more fully a community a grace in the world?
- Imagine that you are Joseph; write a brief letter to an advice column about your situation in relation to Mary and the unborn child she carries. Now imagine you are an advice columnist responding to Joseph; write a brief reply to his letter.
- Think of a gift that your church group might give in celebration of Christmas. What is the gift, and to whom will you give it? Make plans to do so.
O come, O come, Emmanuel. Be with us, God, in all our days and all our ways, that we might be with you now and forever. Amen