By Ryan Tafilowski, reprinted from the Denver Institute for Faith and Work.
My favorite gift last Christmas was a pack of thermal socks. It’s funny how things change. I can still remember how I felt as a child upon opening a “present” from my grandmother comprised of a sweater and socks. Ten-year-old boys are not known for their self-awareness, so it’s a good thing my sweet old grandmother wasn’t there when I opened it. Looking back, I was angry, sure, but there was a lot more going on: a cocktail of resentment, embarrassment, and disappointment. But the dominant emotion, I now realize, was confusion. Why would anyone give socks and sweaters as a gift?
You may remember an iconic scene from A Christmas Story, where a humiliated Ralphie reluctantly models a pink bunny suit gifted to him by Aunt Clara. He’s clearly traumatized by the event; he’s ridiculed by his brother and all but disowned by his father. “You’ll only wear it when Aunt Clara visits,” his mother assures him.
No Strings Attached?
Aside from the petulant entitlement of suburban kids, what do Ralphie and I have in common? We both had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of gift. It’s not our fault, exactly. Western societies like ours have been conditioned to define “gift” very differently than did ancient cultures, including the cultures inhabited by Jesus and Paul. Jacques Derrida, one of the major players in the postmodern philosophy known as deconstruction, argued that, by definition, a gift must come with no strings attached:
For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt. If the other gives me back or owes me or has to give me back what I give him or her, there will not have been a gift, whether this restitution is immediate or whether it is programmed by a complex calculation of a long-term deferral or difference.
That likely sounds natural enough to us, but here’s the problem: from the perspective of the biblical writers, it’s exactly backwards.
As the Bible understands them, gifts do come with strings attached. That’s the whole point. The Greek word for “gift” is charis, which, as it happens, is also the word for “grace.” But that doesn’t mean that grace is free. Now, I can hear Protestant alarm bells ringing, so let me clarify. When the Apostle Paul says “it is by charis that you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8), he does mean that God has done something for us that we could not have done for ourselves and that we couldn’t possibly earn. God’s grace is superabundant in the sheer magnitude of the gift, Jesus Christ himself (the gift whom Paul describes as “inexpressible” in 2 Corinthians 9:15); it is singular in that it is extended to us solely out of divine love and at divine initiative; it is incongruous in that it is offered to undeserving recipients who cannot – and are not required to – meet a standard of worthiness in order to receive it; and it is unconditioned in that God gives it to us without regard for our status or virtue.
When the New Testament uses the language of “gift,” it means all this and much more; but one thing that it absolutely does not mean is “something I can do whatever I want with.” In the biblical imagination, gift-giving both presupposes and creates an enduring relationship of mutuality in which the giving party expects a reciprocal, although not necessarily proportionate, return from the receiving party. Gifts create obligations in the most basic sense of that word: ties that bind two people together.
To put it simply, God does not give us gifts primarily for our own personal enjoyment or to do with whatever we please; he gives us gifts with the expectation that we’ll use them for his purposes. My grandmother expects me to wear my Christmas socks, just as Aunt Clara expects Ralphie to wear his bunny suit. The gift is as much about the giver as it is about the recipient. The entire notion of gift is only intelligible within the context of a world where God has already decided not only to share his life with his creatures, but also to deputize them in the governance of the world he made, which is the very story Genesis 1-2 is telling. In the context of this story, gifts are something for which human beings are accountable.
A Lesson in Kingdom Economics
Jesus often expressed this same idea through his parables. The stories Jesus told have many recurring characters – the shepherd, the farmer, the merchant – but some of his most challenging teachings center on the oikonomos, the steward (e.g., Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 12:42-48; Luke 16:1-8). The oikonomos was a servant or a slave entrusted with the administration of a master’s oikos (household), the root of our English word “economy.” (And if you’ve ever wondered why high schools used to offer courses in “home economics,” this is why.) The oikonomos was almost always a slave, but this was a position of immense influence and agency. When we think of a steward, we shouldn’t imagine a butler or a waiter; we should be thinking of someone like Joseph, who had been fully authorized to manage the affairs of Potiphar’s estate (Genesis 39:1-6). A steward was a powerful person, but only insofar as they exercised the power of the master. At the end of the day, the master could always ask for an accounting of what had been done with his wealth.
Perhaps now we’re in a position to explore one of Jesus’s most famous – and most infamously misunderstood – teachings: the so-called Parable of the Talents, in which three stewards are entrusted with varying degrees of venture capital by the master of the house (Matthew 25:14-30). This story has been subject to a particular kind of abuse in the Faith and Work movement: Jesus, so this interpretation goes, wants us to be “five-talent people” who go out, do great things for God, and maximize return on investment (sometimes understood explicitly in monetary terms). But if we read the parable carefully, we’ll notice that the sheer volume of return isn’t really the point at all. The two “good and faithful” servants – one of whom made another five talents while the other made a return of only two – receive identical commendations from the master: “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
But what of the third oikonomos, the one whom the master upbraids as “wicked and lazy”? What is the master so fired up about? After all, the third servant didn’t lose the initial investment. The problem with the third oikonomos is that he wasn’t an oikonomos at all: charged with investing his talent, he buries it in the ground instead. One gets the sense that the master would have preferred that the steward risk the talent and lose it in some precarious venture rather than simply bury it. Why is the master disappointed? Because it wasn’t really about the money in the first place. It was about the relationship. The master gifts the steward as a gesture of trust and partnership – just as God gifts humans in Genesis 1 and 2 – with the expectation that the steward will use these lavish gifts to contribute to the flourishing of the world. But the wicked and slothful servant is not up to the challenge of a fully human life. In the words of Frederick Buechner, he “plays it safe with his life, living as carefully as he can without really living at all.”
Stewards of Varied Grace
“As each has received a gift,” says Peter, “use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (I Peter 4:10). Notice how fluently Peter speaks the language the divine economy – gift, stewardship, grace. Each of us has something singular to offer to the household of God, a unique way in which we’ve been graced so that we can turn around and grace the world.
Notice, too, a point that is perfectly obvious and yet perfectly easy to overlook: gifts are meant to be used. Aunt Clara wants you to wear the bunny suit. And that’s because it was never really about the bunny suit; it was about the delight the giver takes in the recipient, the trust placed in the receiver of the gift, and the relationship that binds giver and receiver together. When it comes to Kingdom Economics, the only currency that matters in the end is grace and the only return that matters in the end is love: “All things in this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.”
 Jacques Derrida, Given Time, vol. 1: Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 12. Emphasis in the original.
 See here John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), especially 70–75 and 565–67.
 See Frederick Buechner, “The Gates of Pain,” in A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017). Ignatius Loyola, “The First Principle and Foundation,” in David Fleming, SJ, Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: A Literal Translation and a Contemporary Reading, 2nd ed. (Brighton, MA: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1978).