Since the early centuries of the Church, Christians have thought of giving and receiving gifts as a fitting way to celebrate the Incarnation. The logic is simple: God so loved the world that he gave; so should we.
But this simple practice embodies not only a profound theology, but a profound vision of community, one that becomes clear when we consider two New Testament passages that quote from the manna story of Exodus. The first (John 6) is a Passover-Exodus story. Jesus feeds five thousand at the time of Passover, crosses the sea, then speaks to a crowd that, like the Israelites in the wilderness, complains about God’s provision. Jesus is manna sent from heaven to give eternal life (born in a feeding trough, no less!).
The second passage (2 Corinthians:8-9) has a more complicated connection to the manna episode. Paul employs a series of word-plays on the Greek charis to exhort the Corinthians to contribute to a famine relief fund. The word refers sometimes to the favor of God, sometimes to the effect of God’s work in the lives of believers, sometimes to the money the Corinthians will send to Jerusalem. Filled with the charis of God, the Macedonian churches have given generously, and Paul wants to see the same “grace” at work in the Corinthians.
To support his appeal, Paul cites the example of Jesus who became poor to make many rich and then quotes Exodus 16:18: “He who gathered much [manna] did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack.” Paul, like John, reads the manna story christologically. The equitable distribution of manna in the wilderness anticipates the coming of the Bread of heaven who feeds all the hungry.
But Paul adds an ethical dimension. It’s not only Jesus or the church of Corinth who become poor to make others rich. Jesus’ self-gift is the mold for all believers. Nor does Paul want to afflict the Corinthians in easing the lives of the saints in Jerusalem. Rather, he wants “equality,” or as we might say, “reciprocity” or “balance.” At the moment, Corinth can enrich the saints of Jerusalem; later, the saints of Jerusalem will have a chance to reverse the process and supply the needs of the Corinthians. In the long run, it all evens out. When all keep to the way of Jesus, over time there is “equality.”
The manna story exemplifies this equality. In the wilderness, Israel collected bread from heaven and distributed it equitably to all. Similarly, Paul collects money from the churches for distribution to the church in Jerusalem, and expects riches from Jerusalem will flow back to Corinth. Within the church, Paul envisions a circle of exchange, a circulation of gifts, an economy of giving and return.
No doubt this all sounded familiar to the Corinthians. They lived in a world structured by circles of gifts and repayments. Roman patrons gave benefits and services to clients, and clients were expected to repay with praise and the good offices of return service. Aristocrats were bound to aristocrats by gifts and counter-gifts. Emperors treated the people of Rome and the provinces to grain, games, buildings, and monuments, and expected political support in return. Each circle was a narrow one: The giver expected repayment from the one benefitted, and the beneficiary knew he was in debt until he paid it.
Christians sometimes think the Bible replaced these circles of exchange with a straight line of altruistic giving. Paul offers something more interesting. In the church, gifts still move in a circle, but the circle expands infinitely because God begins the giving by giving his Son, manna from heaven. If the Corinthians receive the charis of God rightly, they will follow Jesus’ example of becoming poor to make others rich. Bearing the imprint of Jesus’ self-offering is what receiving grace means.
On the other side of the circle, when they receive the donation, the saints in Jerusalem will close the circle by giving thanks to God. The circle begins and ends with God, so the human givers don’t look to the recipients of their gifts to repay them. There is balanced exchange between church and church, but that smaller circle is circumscribed by a circle that begins and ends with the Father of lights, the Giver of all good and perfect gifts.
Paul’s version of “equality” complicates the one-sided, hierarchical, often abusive relations of Greco-Roman gift and patronage. Paul envisions the church as an economy of “mutual patronage,” each supplying the needs of the other from his riches. It’s an “egalitarian” order in the specifically Pauline sense: not that everyone is interchangeable, but that everyone distributes whatever abundance he has to supply the need of those who lack.
During the Christmas season, Christians give ritual expression to this circle. Because we have received Bread from heaven, we share life and gifts with one another. But the manna economy is supposed to be the permanent form of the church because Jesus is the permanent, superabundant bread. There’s enough to go around because every member of the church has received riches by receiving Jesus and the Spirit. The circle keeps turning as long as it’s Christmas every day. Grace keeps circulating insofar as all conform to the pattern of Jesus who, being rich, became poor to make many rich.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.