In the science fiction movie I Am Mother, the robot (“Mother”) tasked with raising the main character (“Daughter”) presents her with a moral dilemma. Suppose you are a doctor and you have five sick patients each in need of an organ transplant. Without the organ transplant, the patients will die. Now suppose a sixth patient comes in, also sick, but treatable. If you, as the doctor, don’t treat the patient, they will die, but their organs could be used to save the other five. Then Mother gives the moral dilemma a twist: Suppose you as the doctor are that sixth patient and that, by sacrificing your own life, you could save the life of the other patients. Would you do it?
Daughter responds: “Well, do I know these five patients? Are they good humans? Honest. Dishonest. Lazy. Hardworking. I, a life-saving doctor might be giving my life away to people who are murderers or thieves, who end up hurting more people because of my sacrifice.”
Daughter wants to know if the people she’s sacrificing for are worthy of the gift. What would they do with it? Would they squander it or would they use it for the good or for harm?
In his book Paul and the Gift, John Barclay examines ancient patterns of gift giving. He concludes that, in most cultures, gifts are good when they are given to those who are worthy to receive them. Anthropologically, gifts are used to enhance social solidarity. If you give a gift to someone who isn’t worthy, who won’t reciprocate, then the gift will be wasted. That’s not to say that gifts are earned (like a wage), but neither are they given indiscriminately. A good gift giver, in most cultures, can be judged both on the quality of the gift and on who they choose as recipients.
For a modern example, think of philanthropist Bill Gates. If he gave his money away indiscriminately, we would say he was wasting his money. Instead, he carefully considers whether his money will be put to good use. We rightly praise his prudence in gift giving.
After considering how different cultures view gift giving, Barclay then turns his attention to Paul. Paul speaks of a God of grace, a God who gives radically good gifts. When God gives, how does he give and to who?
In Paul we find a surprising twist: God gives salvation – he gives us Christ – without regard to the worth of the recipient. In Barclay’s language, Paul perfects the incongruity of God’s grace. And, this, for Paul, is part of what makes God’s gift in Christ so good. This, of course, contrasts the typical way of giving gifts, which Paul highlights in Romans 5:6-8:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Daughter was, perhaps, willing to sacrifice for the life of good people, but not for the unworthy. Christ, however, died for the powerless, ungodly, and the sinners. He gave without regard for the worth of the recipients. He gave an incongruous gift!
At our Thanksgiving Service, Pastor John and children’s ministry director Becki Watson shared what criteria would make the “best gift ever.” It would be something we need, something we want, something costly, something unearned, and something given without regard to worth. It struck me that the first four parts of this description (needed, wanted, costly, unearned) were self-evident. But the fifth (given without regard to worth) is contested. It’s not “natural” but revealed as true in Jesus.
I find this to be incredibly good news for one simple reason: None of us are worthy. It’s only because God gives us an incongruous gift that we can be saved. In the words of Paul: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15)