Free gifts, Transactional gifts and Emotional debt gifts

“God gives us free gifts.  There are some people who would point out that the phrase “free gift” is redundant, and they’ve got a valid point.  I use the phrase anyway, though, as a way of distinguishing it from other things we also call gifts.  One of them is the transactional “gift”, in which the “gift” is actually the first half of a transaction, and we expect it to be reciprocated by a gift of roughly equal value.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and if both sides are aware of what’s going on, they can go on pleasantly exchanging gifts back and forth for years.  Still, if one person thinks it’s a free gift, and the other person thinks it’s a transactional gift, there can be trouble.

The third kind of gift is the emotional debt gift.  This is the kind of “gift” that is given to put an obligation of debt onto someone.  I give you this thing, and now you have to be grateful to me.  I give you this thing and now you have to appreciate me.  I give you this thing and now you have to put up with my mistreatment of you.  I give you this thing and now you have to love me.  It is surprisingly common.  In fact, anytime you hear the phrase “should appreciate” or “ought to be grateful for” there’s a good chance there’s an attempt to extract an emotional debt from a gift.

In my youth, I was told that if a man gives extravagant and expensive gifts to a girl, she should be very wary of him.  At the time, I thought, “ooh, a man who gives me extravagant and expensive gifts!  That’s a problem I wish I had!”  As I’ve gotten older and seen a bit more of how people’s lives turn out, though, I think that was good advice.  The bling really isn’t worth the emotional debt gift disasters.  If you have to buy love, it isn’t really love.  If you have to manipulate love, it isn’t really love.

We see examples of all three kinds of gifts: the free gift, the transactional gift, and the emotional debt gift.  In many cases, we have gotten so used to interacting with other people using transactional gifts and emotional debt gifts, that when someone actually gives us a free gift, we don’t quite know what to do.  We don’t quite know how to simply receive a gift.

We may insist that we have to reciprocate.  We may insist that we are obligated to pay an emotional debt.  The giver tells us again that it is not a transaction, not an emotional debt, it is a free gift.  We may have some trouble understanding the concept of free gift.  The giver says again, I want to give you a free gift.  Can we simply receive a free gift?  The good news of the gospel is that God gives us a free gifts, and that God gives us the grace to receive them.

Everybody makes mistakes.  Even politicians.  In every society around the globe and in every generation, we can see that some of the decisions politicians make turn out to be good choices, and some of the decisions politicians make turn out to be mistakes.  Across the globe and across the centuries, societies make decisions: some of them turn out to be good choices, and some of them turn out to be mistakes.

Countries across the globe decide whether to wage war with each other.  Sometimes the choice to wage war turns out to be a good choice for a particular country, and other times the choice to wage war turns out to be a mistake.  In wars across the globe and across the centuries, both sides are convinced that their cause is the right one, and that they are fighting for freedom and justice.  In some cases, an increase in freedom and justice results from the war; in some cases, an increase in exploitation and misery results from the war.  In some cases, the situation is pretty much just as bad after the war as it was before.

We read about societies that make human sacrifices to their gods.  We are horrified by the thought of making human sacrifices, and we think human sacrifices are barbaric and cruel.  We think sacrificing your own children is even more barbaric and cruel.  We wonder why no one questioned this practice, why they thought of human sacrifice as something to honor.

If we want to understand them, we can see whether we have anything in common with them.

Modern societies do not sacrifice humans to their gods.  Modern societies sacrifice humans to wars.  Modern societies sacrifice their 18 year olds and 19 year olds to die in wars.  These teenagers go willingly to fight and die when there is no draft.  When there is a draft, we sacrifice our teenaged children to wars, whether they want to go or not.  Across the globe, across the centuries, they die in wars that result in an increase in freedom and justice, and they die in wars that result in an increase in exploitation and misery, and they die in wars that result in a situation that is pretty much as bad after the war as it was before the war.

The persistence of this pattern in so many times and places makes me wonder if there is something at work here that goes much deeper than politics.  Do humans have in us some deep primal fear that we will not be okay unless we make some kind of sacrifice?  Do humans have some deep primal fear that we shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy our lives, enjoy our freedoms, enjoy the gifts that we have been given, because we think that in order to keep harm at bay there is some requirement for us to keep making painful sacrifices?  Does our discomfort with receiving a free gift come from the same part of us that produces the impulse toward human sacrifice?

Our Old Testament passage today about the binding of Isaac provides an interesting reversal on the practice of human sacrifice.  We remember from last Sunday’s passage that Abraham sent Hagar and his son Ishmael into the wilderness to die, because he thought that was God’s will, and God prevented their deaths.  In today’s passage, Abraham is about to sacrifice his other son Isaac, because he thinks that was God’s will, and God prevents the death.  It is a passage we feel at a visceral level, and it is designed that way, with the description of Isaac carrying on his back the wood on which his father intends to burn his body, the description of his father carrying the fire, and the knife.  It gives us the boy’s innocent question to his father, “”The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?””  and the chilling answer, “”God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.””  The passage encourages us to visualize the scene: “Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.”  And it is at this dramatic moment that we get the full impact of the reversal.  God turns down the sacrifice of Isaac and provides his own sacrifice instead.

Unlike many gods worshipped in that era, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob turns out to be a God who does not require human sacrifice from us.  As time goes on, and God’s revelations continue, we discover more.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob turns out to be also the God of Jesus of Nazareth.  In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, we are able to see that far from requiring sacrifices from us, God does the exact opposite and provides a sacrifice for us, the sacrifice of his son, to show us that the way God works is totally different from what we’ve been used to.  Instead of humans owing anything to God or humans giving anything to God or humans sacrificing anything to God, God shows us as dramatically as possible that God gives everything to us as a free gift.  Each Sunday we re-enact this reversal of the sacrifice as we celebrate the Eucharist, in which we hear Jesus’ words to us: “this is my body, which is given for you.”  It is a free gift.

All of our stress about what we deserve, all of our stress about what we shouldn’t have done in the past, all of our stress about what we feel obligated to do in the future, all of that is beside the point.  More than that, all of our stress over those issues is what pulls us away from what really matters.  God is giving us a gift.  Now.  Simply receive the gift.  God is giving us an abundance of gifts: the gift of life, the gift of a beautiful summer day, the gift of blue sky, the gift of singing birds, the gift of friendship and community, most of all, the gift of infinite love.  It is important to receive free gifts, because that is the way we experience unconditional love.  Can we simply receive these gifts?  We can, with God’s help.”