Giving and Taking

Sunday 5th June 2005
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Tobit 4:7-11
1 Corinthians 13

Today's first two readings provide us with a very sharp contrast. The admonition of Tobit to his son Tobias before he goes on a journey, less mannered than that of Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet, comes from the Book of Tobit, part of the Old Testament Apocrypha, which rarely finds itself in the Lectionary. Nonetheless, it is a lovely book and, as far as we know, the first great novel ever written. On the other hand, everyone knows Chapter 13 of St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians, mostly heard in the context of a marriage ceremony, in danger of being taken for granted. It is nice to hear it at a Baptism to connect the two Sacraments.

Both of these Readings are about giving: giving beyond what is required, in the case of Tobit; and giving when it is difficult, in the case of St. Paul. Giving what we think we can reasonably afford is one thing; giving much more than we know we can afford is quite another. Giving to people we like is one thing; giving to people we don't like is quite another. So our two readings are talking about difficult kinds of giving.

Now it will not have escaped your notice that a passage from Tobit was chosen as part of the scene setting for the Baptism of Toby; and this was anything but a coincidence. The reason behind the choice is that the Baptism of a baby gives us a chance to think about vulnerability. Here we have a lovely little boy who relies on his parents for everything. He is vulnerable. He isn't any less a person, he isn't any less loved (perhaps more loved) for being vulnerable. Nobody says that he should be pulling his weight or fulfilling his side of a bargain; at the moment he is accepted among us as, what we might call, in today's administrative jargon, a "net recipient".

But we know our relationship with Toby and other children is more fundamental than a kind of accountancy. As a community we need people who are vulnerable, we need people who will accept what we have to offer; without taking, there is no opportunity to give.

As we grow out of childhood into adolescence, we naturally test the boundaries of our individual independence but in the course of doing this we too often lose our vulnerability, our sense of being dependent and our sensitivity to the generous heart; suddenly, our parents seem to have nothing to give; suddenly we are strong and they are weak; suddenly they look small and frail as we tower above them.

And then, as we get older, as we become inculturated into social responsibility, we end up taking sides. Most of us thank God, a little like the Pharisee in the Temple, that we are on the side of the givers, too easily elevating ourselves above the sad ranks of the takers, the feckless, the scroungers. But Tobit and St. Paul in their different ways are warning us against this kind of self righteous giving; we must give in love, more than we can afford, to those with whom we are out of sympathy. Since the Victorian era we have come to think of the "Deserving" and the "Undeserving" poor"; that might be a helpful but pernicious concept for welfare administrators but it is no way to think as a follower of Jesus Christ who, to borrow the cruel jargon, tended to focus on the undeserving.

What we all need is a little more social imagination; we must try to imagine what it is like to take; and we should go further than imagining; we should learn to take graciously and gratefully ourselves; we should re-learn what it is to be powerless, to be vulnerable; we should learn, in other words, how to be loved.

So soon after his earthly birth, Toby is about to become re-born in Jesus Christ, to become a subject of the Servant King; an interestingly paradoxical idea because we recognise that it is our duty to serve Jesus the king but it is the duty of Jesus the King to serve us. How clear are we about this two-way relationship, about the balance of serving and being served, about giving and taking, about the necessity to be brave for Christ but to be vulnerable to Him?

St. Paul famously contrasts childishness with adulthood: "When I was a child," he says, "I thought like a child... but now I am a man I think like a man"; this is all very well in its place but we must not overdo it; one of the dangers of reading Scripture in general, and St. Paul in particular, is the development of disproportionate enthusiasms; so let us remember now, as we welcome Toby into the life of the immense community of Christ's Church here on earth, and into our own small community, that we are all children of God; and of each other.