Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The giving

In the New Testament, Jesus frequently conveys deep truths in the form of simple anecdotes, or parables. It seems that after Jesus's crucifixion and (so it is said) resurrection, the habit persisted in his apostles. In the Acts of the Apostles (3), we read: 
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o'clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, "Look at us."

And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk ... .
Whether you believe the story literally or not, whether you accept that Jesus had anything to do with the cure, this is still a striking account of a higher law of life.

First, it is told with literary skill easy to miss because of its plainness. The author or authors appear to have deliberately framed it to sound ordinary. "Three o'clock in the afternoon" -- who cares what time it was? We already have been told it was the hour of prayer. "The temple called the Beautiful Gate" -- what did the name matter? The description of the setting reads like a police report.

So we are unprepared when the events of routine daily life are exploded by a healing emanating from out of this world, outside of time.

Most people, believers or scoffers, would perceive the meaning of the story as the removal of the cripple's affliction. Jesus (or God) in action. But the author(s) and contemporary readers were presumably familiar with the Gospels, which are chock full of miracles. For that matter, stories of miracles and magic were at mark-down prices in first- or second-century Judea. It's hard to believe that Jesus's intervention was the point.

So what was?

Again, expectations are confounded. The disabled man expected (or at least hoped) for alms from Peter and John. The reader unfamiliar with the story might imagine the same. But that was not what the apostles gave: "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you ... ." (Emphasis mine.)

Being able to walk for the first time in his life, the formerly handicapped man could be excused for believing that was the center of what would later become a parable. But far more profound, I think, were those words, "What I have I give you."

Institutional charities, including the churches, focus on the "silver and gold" of the giving. Won't you sponsor this poor child? Won't you help us conquer disease XYZ? From their own perspective they are right; their benevolent activities swallow cash.

But above all is the effect on the giver's soul. It is like the quality of mercy as described by Portia in The Merchant of Venice:

It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The most important thing is not what we give (as long as its result is benevolent). Not how much. But that we give from what we have. It doesn't have to entail sacrifice on our part, whatever moralists say, and it's probably better if we don't diminish our emotional or material wealth in the process, because if we do it can leave a speck of resentment. We give most freely and best when we don't count the cost, because there is no cost.

Does that trivialize giving? I don't think so. We don't have instruments sensitive enough to measure its radii of influence. How few of us have not, one time or another, been rescued from an oily black mind sump by a smile, a kindly gesture, a word of appreciation? When another driver slows to let us change lanes, are we not more courteous drivers (for a bit), just slightly better people? 

Giving and taking, taking and giving, may seem a long way from spiritual healing. But they are all blessings, and the world can never have too many.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lifting, accurate and beautiful reflections, Rick, thanks - Bill