With the Christmas season upon us, thoughts are turning to the matter of gifts and giving. Such matters generally invoke joy in people of all ages, but not always. Sometimes we give the wrong things to the wrong people, and sometimes we give for the wrong reasons. And while many Christians lament the fact that gifts and giving can distract our focus from “the real reason for the season,” that’s an issue for another article—and one that relates, thankfully, to everyone’s free will and personal choice.
The origin of Christmas is, of course, the birth of Jesus Christ. It is therefore more than a little appropriate to ask, “What did Jesus say about gifts and giving?”
Whatever your faith or denomination may be, or even if you have chosen neither, you are likely aware in a general way that Jesus encouraged giving. You probably know that he spoke favorably of giving to the poor—though not because he disapproved of wealth or the wealthy per se (sorry, socialists) but for the rather obvious reason that the wealthy don’t need material gifts.
What would we think of Jesus if he had advised, “Give your charitable dollars to those with the largest bank accounts?” We would probably think he was as crazy as if he had urged, “Give your charitable dollars to the government.” And if he inquired of a large audience today, “What did you do for the poor?” I think he would be appalled to hear a response such as, “We voted for the politicians who said they would take care of that.”
However, something Jesus said in Matthew 5:42 (also recorded in Luke 6:30) deserves careful attention. It is often cited by critics of Christianity as proof that Jesus spoke nonsense about gifts and giving.
Let me explain.
A few days ago, I delivered a lecture at a very good Students for Liberty conference in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. My subject? “Was Jesus a Socialist?”, the title of my most recent book. I argued that nothing in his teachings remotely endorsed the ethics or the economics of a centrally planned economy, coercive redistribution of wealth, envy or vilification of the successful, the throttling of profit-motivated enterprise, mandatory communal equality, or government ownership of the means of production. From a young Objectivist (follower of Ayn Rand) whom I know and respect came this question: “But what about Matthew 5:42 in which Jesus said, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away”?
The implication? Jesus was either a socialist or a nutjob, or both. Taken literally, he seems to be advocating the indefensible. Giving anything and everything to anybody who simply asks for it is a surefire prescription for evil outcomes. One would quickly lose everything, much of it to bad people who would put the proceeds to some very bad purposes. And the sucker who gave it to them wouldn’t even be able to care for himself and his own family.
Was Jesus really telling us to go bankrupt? Was he advising us to be terrible stewards of our wealth by giving even to the undeserving, the slothful, the degenerate, the thieving, and the deceitful? Did he honestly suggest that self-sacrifice for any conceivable purpose is a virtue, even if it runs counter to the values we hold to be true and noble? Would he approve if you knowingly allowed others to take financial advantage of you?
To respond affirmatively to these questions is to denigrate the real Jesus in the service of some earthly ideology or animosity. It depicts him as a cartoon character we can smugly dismiss.
A single sentence interpreted out of context or without regard to the speaker’s full perspective is always a license for mischief. It can easily lead to false or incomplete assumptions and erroneous conclusions.
For example, Ayn Rand once wrote, “The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.” Oh really? That, in isolation, is a remarkably sweeping and categorical statement. It is not hard for me to imagine a man of the lowest personal esteem still placing some value on his lunch, or his shoes, or at least his therapist. We would not be fair to Rand if we failed to consider what she really meant, if we did not allow her some license to employ a literary device to make a point.
Rand also wrote, “When I die, I hope to go to heaven–whatever that is–and I want to be able to afford the price of admission.” Should we leap to the conclusion that Rand believed in heaven after all? Of course not, because we know that she didn’t.
Sometimes Rand is misunderstood as an opponent of charitable giving, so intensely selfish that she couldn’t countenance one person doing a good thing for another. Her hero in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, tells Dagny Taggart, “I’ll warn you now that there is one word which is forbidden in this valley: the word ‘give.’”
But her hero in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, generously pays the mortgage of his friend, the sculptor Steven Mallory, and also pays for their meals together. What Rand opposed (as do I) was both the ethic and the “public policy” of forcing one to sacrifice his values for the benefit of another. Agree with her or not, we should at least consider her ideas in full and in context. The same goes for Jesus.
Rand was right on so many things (I wish I could get Objectivists to admit that Jesus was too) but she could also be personally officious, wildly paranoid, judgmental, and intolerant. (See economist Murray Rothbard’s essay for details.) She made, for example, indefensible statements about Native Americans, even denying that any of them ever possessed or recognized property rights, but that doesn’t prompt many Objectivists to reject her outright.
When Jesus said, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away,” was he advocating some kind of socialism? Silly question. Socialism involves the concentration of earthly political power and the use of state coercion to achieve certain objectives. Jesus did not invoke the state in any way in this passage. He never endorsed compulsory giving at sword-point. Whatever you think it was that he was calling for, it was to be a personal choice, not a state function. If he had said, “Go plant a tree,” we would hardly be justified to infer he favored government-run collective farms.
So, then the remaining issue is his sanity. How could anyone call for something as insanely stupid as self-destruction at the behest of the whims or greed of another? Jesus didn’t.
Considering once again both context and the fullness of his teachings, it would be the height of foolishness to adopt a strictly literal view of Matthew 5:42 as a definitive verdict. That, at best, would be a “straw man” argument. To assume he was a goofy “absolutist” on gifts and giving runs afoul of other statements he or his closest disciples made throughout the Gospels.
Jesus asserts in Matthew 7:10, for example, that a good father would never give a serpent to a child (even if the child asks for it). In 2 Thessalonians 3:10, the Apostle Paul urged a rule that would revolutionize modern welfare: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul condemns the able-bodied who refuse to provide for their own families, which of course one cannot do if he gives everything away to whoever wants it.
The most reasonable inference one can draw from Matthew 5:42 is that Jesus was encouraging generosity from the heart—not blind, indiscriminate, self-destructive giving that would defeat the purpose of giving in the first place, but wise stewardship and philanthropy that produces actual, positive outcomes.
I am unaware of an Objectivist food pantry, soup kitchen, orphanage, hospital or blood drive but I would welcome any one of them should one ever spring up. Meantime, I am grateful that people, often of faith, are starting and managing such worthy causes every day. The world would be a darker place without them. Actions speak louder than lectures. And I know that Objectivists are not opposed to gifts and giving because I get solicitations from their organizations requesting gifts of cash all the time.
Gifts and giving are an alternative—indeed, an antidote—to the compulsory, false charity of the welfare state. If you inherited a million dollars and decided to help the deserving needy with it, the last thing you would likely do is cut a check to a government welfare department. Not even socialists and welfare statists do that; just check the “Donations” line in the federal budget if you have a microscope.
Countless acts of voluntary, joyful, charitable giving avoid the wasteful expense of a government middleman. They prevent the demagogue from buying votes with other people’s money. They animate the spirit of Christmas 365 days of the year. If you’re looking for evidence of how Christians—their enterprise, their determination and yes, their generosity—improved life, see Alvin J. Schmidt’s remarkable book (also included in the recommended readings at the bottom of this article).
When you give of your own resources, you tend to expect some change in whatever bad behavior may have contributed to the problems a needy person faces. If a charity proves to be ineffective or corrupt, its donors vanish; when the welfare department squanders public money and perpetuates social problems across generations, it usually gets more tax revenue.
Giving to a worthy cause, such as helping the needy, is often an expression of love—and who can make a credible case that the world already has all the love it needs?
A charitable people recognize that this world is far from perfect, that circumstances require action to prevent harm, relieve distress, and rebuild lives. The single best way to do that is to foster a free economy that inherently out-produces goods and opportunities beyond anything socialists can even dream of. The problems that will inevitably remain are ripe for resolution through heart-felt, charitable giving. A smart people understand that expecting government to get that job done well is a pipe dream.
If Jesus was urging us to dig as deep as it takes to help the deserving get back on their feet—a fair inference from Matthew 5:42—I must say that’s far better advice than doing nothing or waiting for the politicians to do it. I think many Objectivists might even agree with that.
If you choose to give this Christmas season, be thoughtful about it. Give wisely. Give lovingly. Give generously. Give from the heart. Give to people and causes that will make the world a better place. It may be the Christian thing to do, but it’s also the right thing to do regardless of faith or denomination.
–By Lawrence Reed | Foudation for Economic Education