Our lives have been influenced in innumerable and subtle ways by Jesus Christ. One example is the idea of doing something for somebody without the expectation of a return. The gift with “no strings attached” is an ideal we admire and try, not always convincingly, to practice. In the Roman Empire, however, such a practice was almost unknown. In those days, you gave a gift because you expected something in return; it is the origin of the Latin term quid pro quo, meaning something for something. The giving of gifts oiled the wheels of commerce and human relationships;
The emperor Caesar, for example, gave gifts to towns and cities in the expectation that they would remain loyal to him. At a lower level, gifts to local magistrates helped in the approval and undertaking of civic building works. Gift giving was an art, and the greatest beneficiaries of gifts were those of higher social rank. The more important or influential you were in society, the better and more frequent the gift.
Persons of low rank – slaves for example – could not expect to receive anything. The thinking was: “why would you give something to somebody who couldn’t return the favor?” Take, for example, the story of the Prodigal Son. At the lowest point of his life he is given the job of feeding pigs, who eat better than he does. In the gospel it reads: “no one gave him anything.” That was because, in the eyes of the world, he had fallen so low that he was worthless – a nobody, in fact.
This concept of reciprocity recalls an experience I had when, many years ago, I worked as a commercial loans officer for the Bank of Scotland. A potential customer, who was Kurdish, made an appointment with a colleague for a business loan, and I sat in on the interview. At one point my colleague had to take an urgent call and stepped out of the room. While we waited for my colleague to return, our Kurdish customer casually pulled out a Motorola Razr V3 cell phone and flipped it open. It was the first time I had ever seen one. It looked fantastic.
For those of you who remember, the Razr V3 was the most stylish cell phone of its day. Made of metal and with a Captain Kirk-style flip mechanism, it easily eclipsed the Apple iPhone for desirability and “cool.” From the moment I saw it I wanted one, which my Kurdish friend surmised. I then made a simple mistake: I asked if I could hold it.
He handed it to me. I felt its weight and admired its shape and the neat way it closed. I looked up at my friend who had a glint in his eye. He said, in a thick accent, “Yes, I can get one for you.” At that point I realized what he meant. He had already decided that If we were to grant his loan, then he would need to give us something in return – something like a Motorola Razr V3.
Immediately I went into denial – “no, really, I don’t want one. My interest in the phone is purely aesthetic.” All to no avail. He had made up his mind that this was going to help us complete the deal. In the end, our Kurdish friend left and it was my colleague who made the final decision: no loan. I never saw our Kurdish friend again. However, later I went out and bought a Razr V3 for myself, which I still possess.
Thinking back, there was no question of me accepting the gift of a phone. It would have placed obligations upon me I was unable to fulfill (not forgetting of course, that an exchange of this kind was against company rules.) However, in his mind, the customer was doing nothing wrong. He was only following a long tradition which stretched back to the days of the Roman Empire.
This is a tradition which grew out of the natural ordering of human society. However, when Jesus proclaims the kingdom of heaven, he is proposing a new ordering of human society. It involves a gift, but this time the gift is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is given to us regardless of our wealth, honor or social status, and without an obligation to give back anything to him. It says something about us, as human beings, that we are able to perceive the intrinsic merit and power of a gift which has a divine origin. God’s gift overturned value systems operating in the Roman Empire and continues to do so today.
God’s gift is unconditional love. We don’t have to earn it: it is given equally and generously to all alike. This gift springs from God’s love for us, and, if we were to think of an obligation attaching thereto, it may be to consider helping those less fortunate than ourselves, without expectation of a return. As we are recipients of God’s generosity, so out of that treasury, do we freely give.
Those early Christian churches clearly understood this principle, taking care of the less able and poorer in society, behavior which was, even then, remarked upon by non-Christian writers. There was a small revolution taking place in the Roman Empire at the time, which has continued to spread – thanks to Jesus Christ. Let us too accept his gift with thanks and praise and, when our heart is ready, offer ourselves as a gift to those in need.
Love, joy and peace be yours,
Post Script: At the time of writing, the Motorola Razr phone has become available again, in a 2019 model. It costs $1,499. Unless we have a collection for the Rector, I won’t be getting one. (On the other hand, I could be tempted by the option of a monthly rental of $62.49.)