What is a gift? It is something provided to another without expecting or demanding anything in return. It is not an exchange, at least not intentionally. It is a pure provision from you to someone else. In that sense, it is always a sacrifice. We might gain from giving — winning affection, appreciation, good favor — but we must not expect this. It is a byproduct, an after-effect, and unintended result.
We give gifts at Christmas to continue a tradition followed by the Magi from the East who followed the star to find the Christ who was born King of the Jews. They presented him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but these are only the gifts mentioned in the Bible. There may have been more.
Why did they do this? To honor and adore the Christ. It was pure sacrifice and especially meritorious for being so. Their sacrifice, their gift, foreshadows the sacrifice on the Cross and the gift of salvation.
The idea of the gift is that it is something special, identifiable, and unique. It is different from what we do in daily life on a regular basis. Most of what we do in life consists of exchanges based on mutual advantage. When we shop, we know the terms of trade, a specified amount of money in exchange for a good or service. When we work, we received wages. When we study in school, we hope to obtain a degree.
There is nothing inherently selfish or greedy about exchanges. They reflect our desire to cooperate with others in a way that causes everyone to be made better off. Exchange is the basis of prosperity. It permits everyone to gain wealth together, and not at each other's expense.
To celebrate the gift as an institution, then, is not to disparage the moral status of exchanges. Human relations are not debased merely because money is involved. Money is simply a proxy for goods and services. It is a tool that permits us to come to terms in a more efficient way. The problem arises only when the tool (the means) is seen as the end.
Indeed, in one sense we might say that exchange is a necessary precondition to the gift. How did the wise men obtain their gifts? They probably purchased them from a merchant. And how did the merchant obtain them? Probably from a small manufacturer who produced them from raw materials. And where did the raw materials come from? They were obtained via the use of other resources.
An exchange nexus exists before the gift, then as now. And that exchange nexus, by enhancing the wealth available to us, makes more gift-giving possible.
My lesson: While it is possible to distinguish giving from exchanging, it is a mistake to set these two types of human engagement against each other. Exchanging makes giving possible and more bountiful. Without exchange, without private property and a moral sense of its foundation, giving would be limited, impossible or morally dubious.
But neither can we say that the gift is dispensable, a pure luxury that we can either embrace or accept. Life would be cold and inhumane without the gift, simply because exchange relationships do not encompass the whole of civilized life. We must give to our children, spouses, parents, neighbors, religious congregations, and to those in need. We give to our benefactors out of appreciation. We give not only money and physical items but also time, talents, and hearts.
Another way to put this is that economics and charity (love) go hand in hand. They are distinct but not incompatible. Society can always use more of both. And how might we bring that about? By enhancing the sphere of freedom that permits us to act on each other's behalf, for only freedom allows for the exercise of human volition that is behind both exchange and gifts.
The holiday season provides us lovely illustrations of how this happens. We look around and see an astounding hustle and bustle of buying and selling, advertising and promotion, commerce and activity — and we are tempted to regard it as degrading in some way. Sometimes it is.
But it need not be so. To see the spark of Divinity in the midst of our humanity is, after all, what the Incarnation of God's Son at Christmas is all about. To uncover that divine reality we need to recall that the driving inspiration behind the hustle is — or should be — the desire to give to others because we want to sacrifice for and honor others.
With so great a freedom entrusted to us by God comes the obligation to use it well.