Luke wrote, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ ”. This isn’t the passage from Luke’s accounts that typically gets quoted at this season, but it is appropriate.
Too many focus on the receiving and set a poor example for others, especially children. The message in word and song is be good so you can get good presents, that is, the presents you want! Rewarding children for doing exceptional things is a valid method of encouragement, but this lesson tends to be: Be a normally well-behaved child, and Santa will reward you. Worse, Christmas gifts have become something of an entitlement, and we don’t really need lessons in that!
Part of the Christmas story is that the wise men brought gifts for the newborn Christ; their gifts were worship in both the political and sacred sense. They were not setting an example of humans giving gifts to each other, and the certainly weren’t setting up a system of obligations to “give Jerry a gift because he gave me one last year!”
Before you call me “Grinch,” I recall a Christian family that didn’t celebrate Christmas, and most of us who knew them thought it was weird. I can think of numerous arguments against this holiday, but I think that flight has departed. In other words, I fear that attempting to remove ourselves from the celebration of Christmas will harm our influence with little benefit. I would suggest it better to work to demonstrate a better kind of celebration, focused on Luke’s words above.
Perhaps it will help our imaginations to look at Luke’s greater context:
“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”
Here Luke quotes from Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian church. Not surprisingly it has the tone of a loving father to his children. He refers to three things: God graciously provides, Paul did his best to look after himself, and he exemplified hard work to benefit those in need. It is this last “giving” that is a greater blessing than receiving.
Permit me a bit of a parenthesis. I’ve long been struck by an apparent contradiction in Galatians 6. In verse 5, he says, “(E)ach one should carry their own load,” but in verse 2, “Carry each other’s burdens”. So, if each person is carrying his own burdens, why do we need to carry each other’s burdens? Self-sufficient people don’t need help, do they? Of course, the answer is that everyone needs help some times, and we each need to be willing to be helped when necessary! Or, to turn it around, we always have the opportunity to bless others with our generosity. Receiving is a blessing; giving is an even greater blessing.
Receiving is a blessing; giving is an even greater blessing. This is the principle I’d like to consider for our celebrating. First, receiving is a blessing. We are all recipients of God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and abundant provison; life itself is a blessing. Being so blessed is not a reward; it isn’t based on our performance. It is based on God’s love for his children, just as parental gifts should come from their love. That is the message to convey on Christmas morning. Put Santa Claus out of the reward business; don’t emphasize him, and don’t debunk him. Buy a kneeling Santa. Otherwise deal with him as you choose for your family; just don’t make your kids outcasts.
Second, giving is a greater blessing. We need to incorporate this into all our Christmas thinking, and indeed, all of our Christian thinking. Don’t let political thinking distort God’s thinking for us. We of all people should be the most generous to those in need. I favor doing that in ways that discourage fraud and laziness, but I do not favor assuming that all those in need are lazy cheats! In the end God will judge all hearts. However, I want to suggest thinking outside the box. Let’s find our own people to bless—neighbors, classmates of our children, a family from church. They need not to be destitute. If we base our generosity on our love and our compassion, we will indeed bless people without fear of either embarrassing or enabling them.
I confess to being less than ideal with the homeless and disabled; I cannot seem quite to establish a rapport, even though I make every effort to be kind and patient. This is not my area of giftedness. I also think that churches should have a thought out strategy for helping them, sharing the burden, even as we let those who are gifted take the lead. We should include the children and young people in this effort because we should all take part but also because they have a useful perspective as well. So I’m not suggesting avoiding, say, a local soup kitchen, women’s shelter, or orphanage. I just believe the principle here needs to be broad, touching all areas of live and personal involvement.
When I was working in radio, I loved to play a song called “Blessed to be a blessing.” Frankly, I don’t think we’ve done well living up to his challenge. We Americans, American Christians included I fear, like our comfortable lifestyles. We have often fallen into the trap of hanging on to this “heaven on earth.” I love our republican democracy with its capitalistic freedoms, because I believe we have often blessed the rest of the world with our compassion and generosity. I see that changing with a greater measure of selfishness and materialism. Many of us feel entitled to all the material blessings and respond with anger or sadness when they seem threatened. I don’t want to lose our capability for great good, but we need to confront our own greed, not just at Christmas, but all the time.
Receiving is a blessing; giving is an even greater blessing. Believing and practicing those twin principles is the place to start. We have an entire year to consider how to do that in our celebration of Christ’s birth. I challenge you to do so. I think we can do way better than “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas;” instead, “Let’s put Christ’s spirit back in Christmas” with a renewed sense of Christmas blessings.
PS I could see some of those who are far from wealthy reading this and thinking it doesn’t apply to them. Of course, it does! Earthly wealth and possessions are NOT the measure of God’s grace and blessing. A cold man who shares his blanket with another cold man demonstrates the principles here. Pope John Paul II stirred up quite the hornet’s nest when he taught that believers should share of their substance and not just from the excess. Many Americans have totally lost touch with the reality of true poverty when our “poor” have televisions and smart phones and eat well enough to have weight problems. Long after the fact, one of my Sudanese “Lost Boys” brought me to tears when he said he thought I was mocking him for being so skinny. Indeed, I often described them as tall, thin, and dark black. He said, “We were skinny cause we were starving!” Yet those starving, many of them Christian, boys looked after each other during the worst times of their lives…and they survived! Now that is an example of giving!