As if Economics was not already considered “the dismal science,” a vocal number of economists have taken to questioning the value of gift-giving, even labeling it a “market failure.”
By the laws of economics alone, the Grinches have a point: giving a gift is a less efficient exchange than simply transferring money or handing over a gift card. There is always the real possibility that the recipient won’t like his gift, or value it less than the giver paid for it. And significant time is spent searching for and fretting about gifts, which could be eliminated if the intended recipient just bought for himself whatever he wanted from the transferred funds. All of which has led some economists to declare gift-giving a “waste.”
A contrary view was poignantly expressed in O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi,” in which (spoiler alert) an impoverished young couple sacrifice their most prized belongings to buy a gift for each other. The young wife sells her beautiful hair to buy her husband a handsome gold chain for his heirloom watch — only to learn that he pawned the watch to buy jeweled combs for now-gone hair. (Admittedly not the most efficient exchange of goods and resources.)
But O. Henry concludes: “The magi were wise men —wonderfully wise men — who brought gifts to the Baby Jesus… Being wise, their gifts were wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two young people who most unwisely gave for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.”
The Nativity O. Henry references in his brief and brilliant story was itself demonstration of an extraordinary act of giving — and one that defied human notions (then, as now) of wisdom, worth, value, efficiency, and return. Perhaps the most radical of Christian doctrines is that of grace — the idea that God’s love is offered freely, that it cannot be earned, that the best of humans cannot claim an entitlement, even as lowlifes and losers can receive the gift.
Grace itself came not primarily as a proposition, but as a person. And once Grace showed up, he turned the human economy upside down. The late philosopher Dallas Willard spoke of “The Great Inversion” in which Jesus demonstrated, through his revolutionary way of life, a new way of understanding God, the world, other people, and reality as we know it. He flouted the metrics of his age of prudence, respectability, and even virtue, choosing to heal the sick on the Sabbath, hang out with scoundrels, speak privately with women, even denounce clerics. He forgave and healed those who asked, even when it broke the law and was against his interests to do so. He claimed that “abundant life” was realized apart from position, power, or wealth; that one gains by sacrifice, that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and asserted that love of God and neighbor was the highest end and deeper purpose of the elaborately codified laws that formed the society of his day.
The season of Advent anticipates not only the gift of Grace over two millennia ago, but the transformative power of His coming to our own time — to upend our assumptions about who and what should be valued, to understand our broken world in a new way, to make possible the cancelling of moral debt known as forgiveness, and to know the free and priceless gift of Love.
Recommended Readings & Resources
- G.K. Chesterton, “The Strangest Story in the World,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2009.
- O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi & Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2013.
- Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Zondervan, 1997.
- Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, HarperCollins, 1997
- Josh Zumbran, “Economists Say Bah! Humbug! To Christmas Presents,” The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2015.