I have often associated “giving” with church activities. We sometimes call tithing “giving.” We thank a talented soloist for her “gift of music” that she offered. We are often told to “give” to certain projects or funds or needs. We are encouraged to “give” time, talents, and treasures.
And why not?
Jesus was a giver, wasn’t he?
According to St. Paul, Jesus “gave himself for our sins” (Gal 1:4; cf. Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2, 25). In a sense, then, he was the model of a giver. But I am afraid that the way we think about “giving” nowadays (in the Western culture with which I am acquainted) obscures what Jesus’ example of giving intends to communicate.
The way we often view “giving” today, it is transactional, impersonal, and disposable. Our approach to giving is transactional insofar as we treat it in terms of exchange. We hear about a need, then we send a check, input a credit card number or drop money in a bucket. The money goes out and does its work and we send it off with well-wishes, but we stay put.
That transactional approach is also what makes it impersonal.
We are able to “give” without the problem entangling our lives.
Too often we want to give in such a way that, though the need involves our money (to be fair, money we are gracious enough to give), we don’t want the problem to interfere with our lives. And, thus, our giving is disposable. It is “one and done,” so to speak. We feel the need to give, and we give, but the giving troubles us as an irritant or inconvenience, but often nothing more. (I think of those campaigns where we tell parishioners to “give up coffee” for a month and donate the money to a church fund, missionary, or benevolence charity).
Let me emphasize that giving – when it helps someone – is always good. But “giving” (in the way I described above) is not enough, it is not gospel, and thus it is not a distinctively Christian kind of giving.
Jesus was not a giver. At least not in the transactional, impersonal, disposable way. He was more, and the gospel he preached taught and demonstrated more. Jesus was a cruciform giver. Cruciform is a term theologians use to describe the nature of Christ’s death whereby he boldly took on the pain and shame of death on the cross to bring new life to the world.
Cruciformity is not about giving, it is about giving up.
When you “give up” something, you lose something. Jesus didn’t give up (merely) time, talent, or treasure. He gave up his life. To be cruciform as Jesus was cruciform involves more than what is disposable. Put another way, the pattern Jesus set as a distinctively Christian form of giving is deeply personal and sacrificial. It is not about a transaction (like depositing and withdrawing from an ATM), but about sharing. Jesus was not a giver, he was a sharer. Sharing is always personal. I have three young children and they know the difference between giving and sharing. Giving, while initially difficult, is much easier than sharing.
For me, the partaking of the Bread and the Cup is a reminder of cruciform giving – that Jesus demonstrated it, and that in consuming his body and blood we are called to embody the same way of life. Jesus did not “give up” a “part” of his body for us, he was completely broken. Jesus did not “donate” blood. His life was poured out unto death. I am not promoting self-harm, I am not saying life must be miserable. The life of giving that I see in Jesus is cruciform, but it is also joyful and can find deep satisfaction in subverting our “disposable giving” culture.
One example to conclude this post. Recently I had a conversation with a friend about church membership. For many people today, membership is an odd idea. What purpose does it serve merely to have your name in the “membership” category, like signing up to receive catalogs from a furniture store? Perhaps the impact is that the member can vote, or that the member should feel especially important in the community.
But all too often it does not seem to have much significance. Perhaps we can learn from Starbucks on this matter (not that I endorse everything Starbucks does!). They do not call their workers “employees.” They call them “partners.” This symbolizes their involvement in the company. They are not disposable cogs in a wheel, but (ideally) dynamic participants and sharers in the company itself.
"Partners" are encouraged to give to the company more than talent or time. What if the church moved towards this understanding? We do not want members (I think of being a “member of LA Fitness”). We want partners. People who share in the vibrant life of the community, who share until something is lost, but so that more can be gained for all.
May we learn to be givers as the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to do so.