This is the second of Martyn’s talks for the retreat I mentioned in the previous posting. Please see that posting for full details.
‘And they presented unto him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh’…
Our Judaeo-Christian tradition is rooted in various ways in the experience of the desert or dry land. The Children of Israel wandering around the Negev and Sinai. Jesus tempted in the Judean wilderness. The dryness of the land, thirsty people and the desiccation of crops are familiar biblical territory.
In this context the offering and sharing of gifts (and the offering and giving of sacrifices) is to be seen in a new light. Where there is scarcity of water the sharing of a water source such as a stream is life-giving. The giving of livestock to fellow herders, or the access of outsiders to a well is both deeply pragmatic as well as significantly symbolic.
Not all the Bible is set in austere circumstances – witness Eden or Egypt or the Land of Milk and Honey – but generally the peoples of the Middle East experience scarcity rather than over-abundance. So the giving and receiving of offerings has profound purpose.
There is an anthropological expression for such cultures, in which goodness is seen to be in short supply – this is ‘the limited good’. So God’s grace is conventionally restricted and one can only gain at the expense of somebody else. The amount of good luck, money, fertile land, etc. available is finite, so every time one person profits, another loses.
Not surprisingly in these cultural situations there is a strong emphasis on cooperation and collaboration and equality amongst members and there is a resistance to social change. Sharing with others is given high communal priority.
In low-surplus economies there is a drive to steer people away from selfishness and greed and a preference for preserving the social whole. Social approval and status are based on generosity and self-giving.
In our modern world goodness is not seen to be limited – quite the opposite. The abundance of material goods or goodies appears unending, as is our insatiable appetite to consume them. Yet we are constantly reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip that “people know the price of everything but the value of nothing”.
In the coming weeks our lives, our shops and our homes will become saturated with presents. Gifts (often unwanted) will be amassed to be shared out over the Christmas period and we shall mostly take all this for granted – for do we not live in a time of excess and ostentation?
There are, however, two difficulties with this. The first is one of ecology – that the apparent seasonal plenty is actually based on cheap energy, exploitation of labour and the current availability of resources which are actually finite. None of these are sustainable, so in the longer-term we shall also likely find ourselves in a society with more limited material goodness, which will prompt more radical thinking about the realities of ‘Only One Earth’ and ‘Limits to Growth’ (to refer to two earlier books addressing this issue).
The other dilemma is that ‘gifting’ is so common that we forget its importance. We neglect that specialness of taking something which another person does not have or may not have access to (traditionally hand-crafted in many instances) and presenting it to someone else on a special occasion. In other words we fail to remember that giving something away is an act of love and reflects the Grace of God.
I would like to internalise this for us to reflect on ourselves, so my question for you in this regard is this:
WHAT ARE MY DEEPEST AND MOST PROFOUND GIFTS?
How do I share them with others? To what effect?
Who or what is gifted to me? Do I really appreciate what others give to me?
(End of Talk 2)