When reflecting on our economic action, we tend to be overly focused on one side of the exchange: our own benefit, our own profit, our own “piece of the pie.” Our consumer-centered culture happily affirms such an emphasis, routinely promoting a zero-sum vision of the economy and self-centered attitudes about vocation, daily work, and economic exchange.
But when we take a step back, we see that our economic interactions also represent real relationships, each offering unique opportunities for love, service, generosity, and gift-gifting. Our economic activity unites us with neighbors and creates value that extends beyond the material stuff.
Whether we recognize it or not, we are giving as well as receiving. We are creators, producers, contributors, and gift-givers.
In an essay for the Denver Institute for Faith and Work, theologian Ryan Tafilowski builds on this perspective, explaining how Christians bring a distinct vision of stewardship as “gift-giving” that adds life to our economic interactions – from our mundane labor and daily purchases to global trade and policymaking.
Modern society has come to view gift-giving as a sort of benevolent detachment. It is fundamentally one-sided, from gift-giver to recipient. As philosopher Jacques Derrida argued, “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.”
Contrary to our popular dichotomies about charity and business – “for profit” vs. “nonprofit” – the Bible promotes a view of exchange that is far more interdependent and varied. “Western societies like ours have been conditioned to define ‘gift’ very differently than did ancient cultures, including the cultures inhabited by Jesus and Paul,” writes Tafilowski. “As the Bible understands them, gifts do come with strings attached. That’s the whole point.”
Christianity points us toward a generosity marked by mutuality. While the church often talks about “free grace,” we misunderstand what such a concept actually means. “God’s grace is superabundant in the sheer magnitude of the gift,” Tafilowski writes. But while it is both “incongruous” (“offered to undeserving recipients”) and “unconditioned” (“God gives it to us without regard for our status or virtue”), God’s supreme gift serves as an invitation into covenant and relationship. Grace is not something we can earn. But it is something that, once received, necessarily manifests in an outward response.
This relationship with the divine completely transforms our lives and, in the same way, it ought to transform and multiply across our interactions with each other:
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 … 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.
Pointing the Parable of the Talents, Tafilowski connects the dots more closely to the realm of economics, noting how Jesus positions gift-giving within a framework of stewardship. While many Christians think of this as a parable about “maximizing return on investment” (materially or otherwise), Jesus is more focused on the contour of the relationship itself. Is there, indeed, a partnership?
The first two stewards responded to their gift, whereas the third steward simply received:
The problem with the third oikonomos [steward] 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.
Jesus’ lesson here is not primarily about “putting our money to work” in order to multiply our own material harvest for the sake of our own comfort and convenience. The point is that our creativity and exchange – our work, our trading, our investments, our multiplication – necessarily involves relationship, collaboration and cooperation with God and neighbor alike.
In order to fully grow, in order to fully receive, we must fully give.
Such a perspective changes everything. The economy is no longer merely a tool for self-provision but a community for creating enduring bonds between countless persons. Our economic action is sure to yield plenty of personal blessings, but it is first and foremost a gift we offer with love and gratitude.
The presence of or potential for “profit” doesn’t negate any of this. In a context of wedded obligations and ongoing partnership, the fruits of the Spirit have plenty of room to manifest. In some ways, our acts of generosity simply take a different shape, focused around a longer-term vision of meeting the needs of others, seen and unseen. When our work is connected through circles of exchange, it breeds fellowship that is formidable for the future.
Of course, much of this activity is happening regardless of a conscious “gift-giving” mindset on our part – Christian, secular, or otherwise. How much more, then, might we manifest abundance if we simply change our attitudes and widen our perspectives? How much better might we bear better witness to the Source of such blessings, illuminating what’s available from the Giver who gave us those gift natures in the first place?
“Our work is not just toil, or something that concerns just us,” says Stephen Grabill in the Acton Institute’s film series, For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles. “It’s something that creates a huge organic mass of relationships between human persons. … The fruit of that tree and all of our creativity is not only products, but relationships. … The fruit of our labor is fellowship. It’s community.”
All is gift, and across the economic order, we have the opportunity to mirror and embody the extravagance of the God Who created and gave, but didn’t do so from a place of lofty detachment. His gift is inescapably bound together with an invitation into intimacy and fellowship.
“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, concludes Tafilowski. “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.”