At meal time, my 23-month old daughter likes to share her food with me and my wife. Sometimes if she starts giving us too much of her food, I’ll say, “No, thank you. It’s for you, you eat it.” But most of the time we’ll allow her to share with us. She seems to have developed this ritual apart from anything we’ve attempted to teach her, and I love watching her expressions of satisfaction as she places her little hand in mine and offers a small portion of what she’s been given. This simple gesture puts a smile on all our faces, and mealtime is surely better for it.
Recently, it struck me that this ritual of receiving and sharing points to an important principle of generosity and, more specifically, to the faulty perceptions we can have of those who appear to be utterly dependent on our goodwill.
In her act of sharing, my daughter reminds me that every human being, made in the image of God, has an innate desire to create, to provide, to give, to share. When we give to others while the assuming that they have nothing to give us, we are chipping away at their human dignity and failing to affirm the divine image in which they are created. Our well-intentioned demonstrations of generosity can quickly turn into paternalism, dehumanization, and perpetuation of the very conditions we think we’re alleviating. These unintended consequences are the result of our failing to take into account the ability and the desire of the recipient to give, to provide, to offer themselves for the good of others. This is a difficult and even counterintuitive principle to grasp because our acts of providing for those in need seem so loving, are applauded by others, and feel very satisfying.
But in the kingdom Jesus inaugurates, it is often the people who appear to have the least that God regards as most generous, the widow at the treasury who gives out of her poverty serving as perhaps the most prominent example. Jesus conveys this notion more broadly in his description of how the kingdom of God is being ushered in, namely through those on the margins – the widow, the outcast, criminals, children. God’s generous mercy is extended not through those who have to those who have not, but precisely the other way around.
This principle of God’s kingdom should encourage increased generosity accompanied by the questions, “Are we serving the poor in a way that affirms their dignity? Have I considered what I could receive by those I perceive as needy? How can this act of generosity be rooted in koinonia, a deeper fellowship in God’s generosity toward all of us?”
If it’s true that it’s better to give than to receive, may God direct us to be generous in ways that allow all to share in the joy of generosity.