On Giving: What goes around…

When we are reunited with God fully in the Heavenly City, how should we explain what we have done with the entirely unmerited gifts that have been given us?

Parable of the Talents  by Willem de Poorter; English martyr, Robert Southwell.

Last December, I had lunch at Taco Bell, ending in a conversation with the cashier about the upcoming Christmas season.  We talked about how rapidly Christmas was approaching, how much we had to prepare, and how different this Christmas might be given the economic pressures of the times.  As I left her, she suddenly blurted out, “I’m getting nothing for anyone this year.  Last year I spent $400 on gifts for my family, and I got absolutely nothing in return.  I got no gifts at all.  I’m not even bothering to buy gifts this year.”  I was a bit taken back by the obvious emotion in her words, so I commiserated with her and left feeling sorry that she had been left out last Christmas.

But I could not stop thinking about her outburst.  The more I thought about it, the less I sympathized with her (partly because I am ashamed to admit that I recognized some of her sentiments in myself over the years).  Did she buy gifts for others simply to receive something in return?  Should gift-giving be reduced to a “cash nexus,” where a mathematical equation balanced gifts given with gifts received?  By not giving gifts, the woman might be denying others the fruits of her generosity, and might make the point of “tit for tat” given her omission last year.  But wasn’t she also denying herself something?  Was she missing out on what everyone calls “the joy of giving”?  Was she denying herself an opportunity to express her feeling for her family?  Would she feel guilty next year for her refusal to buy gifts this year?

It made me think long and hard about the “whys and wherefores” of gift-giving, at Christmas time and throughout the year.

Social scientists have long studied the whole human practice of giving gifts.  A French anthropologist named Marcel Mauss wrote a famous book, entitled: The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. In it, the author suggested that gift-giving played an important role in identifying roles and obligations in human society.  Gift-giving was a ritual that identified the social roles of giver and receiver, and was steeped in social morality and self-interest (by giving more than you got, you established your right to great respect in society).  For Mauss, gift-giving was about power, ritual, obligation, morality (and, of course, sexuality, as he saw gift-giving as an evolutionary process that favored strong and affluent males who sought access to the most desirable women of the clan).

Psychologists emphasize the value of gift-giving for emotional health and well-being.  Giving gifts makes us feel good about ourselves, partly because we are showing concern for someone else, transcending our own selfish needs.  Not giving gifts damages human relationships, according to psychology professor Ellen J. Langer at Harvard University.  In fact, the type of gifts we give often defines the state of our relationship to each other.  Margaret Rucker, another academic psychologist, tells the story of a colleague who knew her marriage was over when her husband gave her a gift in a brown grocery bag.

But as Catholic Christians, we do not give just for psychological or social reasons.  We believe that human beings are more than just social animals, trying desperately to find our roles in the world; and more than self-centered creatures, trying to increase our pleasure and reduce our discomfort.  We believe that we are made in the image and likeness of One who is greater than ourselves, and that we are endowed with bodies but also minds and spirits that seek reunion with the God who made us.  We believe that much of what we do stems from higher motives than social or individual utility.  In short, we believe in love.  So what does our Catholic faith and spirituality tell us about gift-giving?

The so-called “parable of the talents” from the Gospel of Matthew (25:14-30) is an intriguing story with layers of meaning that might enrich our thinking about Christian giving.  The parable focuses on a rich man who left portions of his estate to three different servants before venturing on a long journey.  When he returned, the three servants rendered an account of their trust, with the first and second servants doubling the treasure entrusted to them, and the third, knowing that his master was “a hard man, reaping where {he} did not sow, and gathering where {he} did not winnow,” buried his allotted portion and returned it untouched.  The master, indeed a hard man, responds furiously, berating the servant for not returning his investment with interest and casting him into “the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

On one level, the master appears unfair.  He rewards the “slick” and worldly servants, who risked his fortune, while punishing the solid one who simply protected his allotment.  The conclusion of the parable, as told by Matthew: “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” This seems to contradict other Gospel lessons about the primacy of the poor: “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”  What about the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31)?  What about the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16: 1-13), where Jesus reminds us that no person can serve both God and “mammon”?  What about the Sermon on the Mount, the classic Scriptural enunciation of the virtues of poverty and simplicity?  Don’t those stories appear to counter the “parable of the talents”?

Then again, I think how the master in the parable was gone for “a long time.”  Perhaps, it was implied that his servants should continue his affairs in the interim, increasing his wealth.  But, why didn’t he simply tell them that, if that is what was expected by him?  Without his express approval, what if they had risked his fortune and lost it?  Try breaking that news to a harsh master.  I have a feeling that failure was not an option for these servants, which again seems at odds with my belief in a forgiving and merciful God.

Of course, the parable has deeper meanings.  The talents given the servants correspond to the many gifts (material and spiritual) that God has given each of us.  God gives each one of us something.  I had a professor once who rather clumsily told another student who had confided that she would probably never find a boyfriend, “Not to worry.  Every dog has its day.”  Not exactly a sensitive response, but we understood the meaning.

Every one of us has received something from God.  All of us have been given life, while some of us have received more of the good things of this life, enabling a relatively healthy and carefree existence.  Even if we are materially poor, who fails to see the deeper spiritual blessings and talents each of us has received from God?  What are we to do with those gifts?  I think there are three options: 1) We can hide them in a basket, bury them in the ground, or save them for a “rainy day” that may never come.  2) We can abuse our gifts by using them to manipulate others to our own advantage.  3)  Or we can use them often and well, as God intended, to “make God’s good world better.”  If we look at our gifts that way, each of us becomes God’s servant, who, while we live in this Earthly City, are accountable for the things God has given us.  When we are reunited with God fully in the Heavenly City, how should we explain what we have done with the entirely unmerited gifts that have been given us?  Even a merciful and forgiving God might be disappointed if we explain that we did nothing with the life that was awarded us.  Even the gift of lemons can be made into lemonade.

The parable of the talents really teaches a deep moral lesson about the nature of giving.  The master gave his servants an unexpected gift (accompanied, as are all gifts, with a responsibility).  In turn, they could hide those gifts or use them.  When the master returned, the servants had to give his gifts back—the gifts of returning his treasure with interest.  Maybe all giving is really giving back.  We give back to God in thanksgiving and praise for all God has given us.  We give to others in recognition that they are themselves gifts to us from God.

This lesson is reflected well in the life of Robert Southwell, a 16th century English Jesuit who was born with the proverbial “silver spoon in his mouth.”  Southwell’s family was rich, and well-connected at the English court.  They lived on a large estate that had once been a monastery, suppressed by Henry VIII, and given to the Southwells for services rendered to the crown.  Robert Southwell was said to have been so fair and handsome as a child that he was kidnapped by gypsies.  But, despite these advantages, he left home at the age of 15 to attend Catholic schools in France and Italy (such schools were outlawed in England).  While his father had foresaken the Catholic faith, Robert embraced it, joining the Jesuit order in 1578.  He proved a brilliant student, was ordained a priest in 1584, and became a tutor at the English College of Douai, before volunteering for the so-called “English mission.”  By choosing to go back to England, Southwell was essentially signing his own death warrant.  Catholicism was outlawed in England, Catholics were considered traitors to the kingdom, and Catholic priests—regarded as agents of a foreign power bent on destroying Protestant England— were subject to the most severe penalties.

Still, Southwell persevered in his mission, serving as pastor to a number of Catholics who were secretly practicing their faith, in and around London, and the in more heavilyCatholic north.  He wrote poems and essays on spiritual themes to defend the Catholic faith, encouraging English Catholics.  Finally, he wrote an essay to the English Queen (Elizabeth I) on the peaceful nature of the Jesuit mission in England.  This represented a political act, making him “public enemy number one.”  Despite the efforts of English Catholics to hide him in the countryside, he was betrayed, being arrested in 1592.  A sadistic government official spent the next three years torturing Southwell in hopes of getting him to betray the identity of other English Catholics.  When Southwell insisted that he be tried for any crimes, he was convicted of treason, and died a most gruesome death in 1595 (for which he has been canonized as one of the Forty Holy Martyrs of England).

What does Robert Southwell have to do with the virtue of giving?  Southwell—favored, sensitive, brilliant, deeply spiritual, despised, hunted, tortured and executed—wrote several poems (many while he was in prison awaiting execution) on the birth of Christ.  He was strongly attracted to the mystery of the Incarnation, which he saw as the purest gift for sinful human beings.  Despite his misfortunes, or perhaps because of them, Southwell remained committed to the Christian obligation to give back to God, and others, for the gift of Christ.  In his poem, “The Nativity of Christ,” he wrote:

Gift better than himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, himself he freely gave me,
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

This from a man who was experiencing the loss of every material thing, including his goods and his freedom, a man under torture and awaiting what he knew would be the most horrific death imaginable.  Not many of us were born with the advantages of a Robert Southwell, but, then, not many of us have chosen to renounce what advantages we do possess to follow our conscience and our faith.  Thank God, most of us have never had to face that choice.  So, when we confront someone who did make that choice, and still saw life as a precious gift that required his own giving in return, we should pay attention.  Robert Southwell has much to teach us about giving.

I saw a Hallmark Christmas special recently, entitled:  Have a Little Faith.  I walked in near the end of the show, as my wife was watching it, in time to see the main character (Mitch Albom) visiting an elderly rabbi on his deathbed.  The rabbi asked Albom why he kept visiting him over the years.  Albom answered that he needed something.  “Did I give it to you,” the rabbi asked?  “Yes,” Albom answered.  “Thank you,” said the rabbi.

Just as in Southwell’s poem, the giver thanks the one he has given for the gift (“This gift doth here the giver given bestow.”)  All giving is giving back.


Richard J. Janet, PhD About Richard J. Janet, PhD

Richard J. Janet is professor of history at Rockhurst University and former director of Rockhurst’s Thomas More Center for the Study of Catholic Thought and Culture.


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