Thursday, October 26, 2023

Does a real gift truly expect nothing in return?

I recently saw the statement below posted on social media.

That sounds very nice. After all, what could be more noble that unlimited generosity?

The problem is, the statement simply isn't true.

New Testament scholar John M. G. Barclay, in his magisterial work Paul & the Gift, writes that "it is only in modernity that there emerges the ideal of the unreciprocated gift"—that is, a gift that expects nothing in return (p. 55).

In antiquity, gift-giving was all about establishing relationships and creating social ties, which by its very nature involves reciprocity (p. 51). The recipient of a gift was supposed to give some kind of gift in return. That gift was certainly not always of the same type or quantity as the gift received, but he or she had to give something in return or risk being considered an ingrate. The thing given in return could be public praise of the generous benefactor, or some material good or service to the benefactor that, while nowhere near as grand or valuable as the gift, served as a token of gratitude and a demonstration that the giver and the recipient were now in a relationship. "Gifts were distinguishable from loans or market transactions by the fact that no return could be demanded or enforced, but they were not detached from every notion of exchange or return" (p. 74).

The greatest gift in all of history is found in John 3:16. The God of Israel, who created the universe and everything in it, gave His one and only Son, the Messiah-King Jesus. In exchange for the gift of eternal life and forgiveness of sins, God expects something in return: our allegiance to King Jesus, and our obedience to Him and His ways as set forth in the Bible.

Note: allegiance and obedience are not a prerequisite for us to receive salvation. But they are the expected response of gratitude to the King who saves us. (For more on this, see David de Silva's work on grace [charis] and faith [pistis] in the context of patron-client relationships that the Apostle Paul's first readers would have naturally understood).   

YHWH didn't require the children of Israel to do anything special for Him to deliver them from the bondage of Egypt; that was a gift of grace. However, based on the fact that He had delivered them out of slavery, God expected certain things from the people with whom He chose to establish a covenant (see Exodus 20).

For further reading, see:
Paul and the Gift by John M. G. Barclay

You may also want to listen to a lesson I gave on the subject of grace and faith at my church.

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