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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - Give as God Gives

Robert Barron - Give as God Gives

Robert Barron - Give as God Gives
TOPICS: Generosity

Peace be with you. Friends, I wonder if you've heard about this phenomenon discovered by some sociologists of primal cultures. There's a scenario in which two chieftains, two rulers of tribes, essentially destroy each other in rivalrous displays of hospitality. I know that sounds weird, but here's the scenario. So, one chieftain entertains his rival with this lavish display of hospitality. With a great meal and giving gifts and so on. Well the other chieftain then feels, "Wait a minute. I've now been put in a sort of disadvantageous position, because now I look like I really owe this guy something". And so he responds with an even more extravagant dinner and more extravagant gift-giving.

So now the original fellow says, "Well, wait a minute. Now I'm in the disadvantageous position. I've got to just go over the top with another show of hospitality". And this goes back and forth until the two societies, the two tribes, basically destroy themselves. Well, curious thing, but it's pointing to, in its own exaggerated way, a reality that we all face. The French sociologist Emile Benveniste noticed an interesting etymological relationship between the word "hospitality" and the Latin word "hostis," which means enemy. So when we speak of hostility, a hostile attitude, from "hostis," enemy, well, it's related to hospitality, hostility. It's that idea that sometimes our displays of generosity can actually be aggressive, actually lead to rivalry and dissension.

Another French philosopher of the twentieth century, one of the most influential, called Jacques Derrida, spoke, in light of this, of what he called the "dilemma of the gift". Here's what he means. In our world, it's practically impossible to give a gift. Now how come? Well, a gift, by definition, is something that's offered with no strings attached, right? If it's a gift it's just given to me gratuitously. I'm not expecting anything in return. There's no string attached to it. However, again, in this world that we actually inhabit, whenever you give a gift, you do at least implicitly obligate the person who receives it. Think of when you receive a gift from somebody. It's a monetary gift, let's say, at Christmas time. Don't you feel at least the obligation to respond with a thank you note?

In other words, the gift comes as a kind of invasion that now awakens in me a need to respond. And see what that means, Derrida said, here's the dilemma, is that you can never really give a true gift because we're always caught in this sort of demand of exchange. Well here's the thing, everybody. I think this is largely right in our fallen, sinful, and conflictual world. I think it is very hard to give a gift or receive a gift without being caught in this kind of obligatory exchange. I'll confess to this. It's something very simple, but sometimes, let's say around Christmas time, and you get a card from somebody, and it's nice. It's a nice card. And here's a card with a check in it. You think, "Well, God bless you. Thank you for the gift. But now I'm obligated to write a thank you note, or I'm obligated to respond in some way".

Here's an interesting one, too, people, that reflect along these lines. In German, the word for poison is "gift," G-I-F-T. Now, it was just kind of an accident that the English word gift is the same word for poison in German. It's making the same point that we're caught in these difficult rhythms of exchange and mutual obligation when there's gift-giving involved. Now, as far as I'm concerned, there is one great exception to this Derridean principle. Who can really, truly, and fully give a gift? God. Why? Because God needs nothing. Our praise, our gratitude, anything we give to God adds nothing to God's greatness. God's perfect. Everything we have is in fact already been given by God. And so there's nothing he needs in return. God, in other words, can be utterly gratuitous in his giving.

Think how often the Bible speaks of God as a giver. He gives creation. He gives a covenant. He gives redemption. He gives his very self in Christ. And expecting nothing in return, because nothing can perfect him or fulfill him in any way. I've spoken before about love as the willing of the good of the other as other. When I love, I will your good. Now look at the Derrida thing. If I'm willing your good so that you might return something to me, so I give to you that you might now be obligated to me, well that's not really love, is it? It's indirect egotism, I'm willing my own good through you. But God can give in this absolutely gratuitous way. God can love purely and absolutely. Okay, all of the above is a preparation for our extraordinary Gospel taken from Luke's Sermon on the Plain.

So in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives his great paradigmatic sermon on a mountain. In Luke, it's on a plain. But it's a lot of the same content. I think what Jesus is talking about here makes sense, listen now, only for people who are sharing in the divine life. You listen to what Jesus says and you say, "Well look, that's impossible in this world, this finite, conflictual, sinful world". Yes, quite right. And all these people saw it. Derrida got it right. It's impossible to live this way. But, but, if by grace, you can share in the very way that God exists and that God loves, then you can live this way. All right, let me show you what I mean. Let me show what I mean. Listen now to this familiar statement, still unsettling in its radicality. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you".

You see what's happening here, everybody? Love your enemies. What's an enemy? An enemy's someone that doesn't like you, that doesn't love you, is not going to return the favor. In other words, give without expecting return. Give in such a way that there are no strings attached. And the way you test that is by loving your enemies, those who don't like you, they don't love you, they won't respond. That means you're loving with the purity of God's own love. Again, do good to those who hate you. So what do most of us do in this sinful world? I'll be good to you that you might be good to me. I'll be good to those who will return the favor. But that's not what he's talking about. In fact, he's talking about breaking that rhythm. Do good to those who hate you. They're not going to respond. Bless those who curse you.

So why would I bless someone? Well, then maybe they'll bless me. I'll call God upon you that you will call God upon me. No, no, no. Bless those who are actively cursing you. That way, you're loving the way God loves. Pray for those who mistreat you, Jesus says. How can I do that? I'm not going to pray for someone that's mistreating me. Yeah, you should. Because now you're doing so out of sheer love. You know that line, that God makes his sun to shine on the good and bad alike. It's the same thing. See, the sun is the sun of God's love. It shines indifferently. It's not shining on those who will now shine back. It shines on the good and the bad alike. So must we be who participate in the divine grace.

Listen now to this. "Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back". What? This doesn't make a lick of sense, political, economic, psychological, sociological, right? Doesn't make a lick of sense. Give to everyone who asks for you. No. How about give to some from whom you can expect a return, give to some who might benefit you, give to some who'll be creative with what you give them, etc., right? We put all these restrictions. No, no, says Jesus. "Give to anyone that asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back".

Someone steals something from me? No, in justice, I'm going to steal something back from him. No, no. No, no. Don't play that game. Don't get caught in that rhythm. Love as God loves. Now, lest we miss the point. I'm right at the heart of the Sermon on the Plain now. We're right at the heart of Jesus' message. Lest we missed it, listen. "For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same".

In other words, don't just operate the way the world operates. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. I'll give to you if you give to me. That's the way the world works. Even sinners do that. No, no, you are to love the way God loves, filled with his distinctive grace. Listen now as the Lord sums up this extraordinary teaching. And can I recommend, everybody, spend a little time here, sixth chapter of St. Luke. Spend a little time with this teaching. It'll change everything if you take it in. But listen now as he sums up. "Love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great", listen, "and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked".

There's Christianity, as far as I'm concerned. What kind of God do we have? Think of how many people, by the way, project our weird kind of sick way of dealing with each other onto God. When will God love me? Well, if I'm morally impressive enough. When will God love me? If I give him what he needs. That's not the God disclosed by Christ. No, no. Makes his sun to shine on the good and bad alike. Makes his refreshing rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. Again here, "he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked". What if we lived our lives this way? That means we've been transfigured by grace, that we've been Christified, that we could say with St. Paul, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me". This is an ethic, in other words, not for this ordinary world. It's an ethic for the saints, an ethic for those who've been filled with the unique grace that God is. And God bless you.
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