The gift that cannot be kept
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the 7th of February 2021, The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Accomplished writers will often tell aspiring writers that the beginning and the ending are the most critical parts of a narrative or storyline.
After successfully using the reading strategy in high school, I found out it doesn’t get you an “A” on a college paper. Yet, reading the beginning and end of a book does tell you a whole lot about what comes in between. So, we should pay attention beginning of the gospel of Mark as it is markedly different from the other gospel accounts. Instead of dwelling on the background and early life of Jesus, very quickly Mark describes nascent ministry of Jesus.
In last Sunday’ reading from the first half of Chapter One, Jesus broke the hold of demons on those afflicted. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus builds upon his healing ministry. He broke a fever which had gripped Peter’s Mother in Law.
In some ways, the first set of healings demonstrates the character and the raison detre of Jesus’ ministry. Following the will of the Father, Jesus had come to break the bonds that held people and society captive whether were demons, a fever or the unholy cultural, systemic and occupation forces which enforced or which aided and abetted oppression, bondage and exploitation.
Jesus must to some have appeared to be just another healer of which there were many in his time.
Jesus healings were different in important ways critical to our faith. Why are accounts of Jesus healing so critical to emphasize nearly 2, 000 years after his ministry ended on the cross Gethsemane?
There are many reasons of course. I want to explore two that have Roman roots. It may seem unlikely but two Latin words; munus and donum hold a lot of potential for explaining why the healings of Jesus are so important for Christians.
Munus has a rich variety of meanings which center on the obligation of a citizen to give back to their city or the state. It captures a sense of the obligation of a single person to the larger group in which they live and from which they benefit.
The meaning of donum is closely related to munus, with a different focus that being a gift or an offering.
The philosopher Robert Esposito set out to explore the roots of community. His work led him to deeply examine the meaning of munus and donum in his quest. His powerful, creative insights can be applied to help break open and deepen our understanding of the work of Jesus, and understand how it informs true Christian community.
In his book entitled Communitas, Esposito arrives at a conception which emerged from through his immersive study of the Roman conceptions of munus and donum.
Esposito re-imagines the obligation as a gift which is too rich and too important to keep for ourselves. The munus, the obligation, and donum, the gift can be described as the obligation to share the gift that one has. Esposito expands further: this is the “gift that one must give and because one cannot give.” The gift in essence is bigger than the holder; it is beyond the control of the one who possesses it. That is the true sense of donum and is a primary component of true community. Esposito writes densely in dialogue with other philosophers. He is not a theologian; yet his work, in a stunningly profound way, he illuninates important aspects of the foundations of the ministry of Jesus.
For instance, was not Jesus’ gift for healing people and for restoring the wholeness of people a gift that he could not keep for himself?
It was a gift which was far too significant and impactful not to share.
Of course, we have the benefit of knowing of the importance of his gift, because his gift emanated from God.
We also know that Jesus was following a much larger plan of salvation by healing people. It was the tiniest of the tip of the iceberg signifying a sea change to come. Offering salve to a small group of people prefigured the salv-ation of all of mankind.
The impetus or underlying motivation for the offering is free from ulterior motive. An ulterior would shatter the life altering potential of the gift, the authenticity of the gift, and more important, the power of the gift to point to an alternative outside the transaction giving, in philosophical lingo—an alterity.
By contrast, a healer peddling their healing power for their own gain cannot be said to be offering a true gift, because it is transactional or in exchange for something in return. This is not alternative pattern, but of the old ways—it is quid pro quo.
When one demands something in exchange for a gift, it ceases to be a gift.
Note there is no record of Jesus demanding anything in exchange for this healing. Because he did not ask for anything.
If we fast forward to the end of Jesus ministry, we see that his own death conforms to the pattern of giving the gift that cannot be kept for himself.
And the gift of Jesus moves us to a new spiritual dimension, because he gives himself, an offering out of love for the sake of the community, that group beyond that of the individual, the community of the entire world and all of creation.
Jesus was himself that gift unexcelled offered freely to the larger community, the munus, in this case, the world.
It is important to note that this giving of the gift may come at some or even great cost. We will explore this aspect of giving in community more next week.
But for now, perhaps, we can focus our attention on how we might offer the gifts that we cannot keep for ourselves.
What must we share? What can we not share?
The answer is something that each of us is invited to pray about, listening for the will of God, as did Jesus in that deserted place.
We are of course not expected to be the Saviour—there was only one and none are expected be Jesus.
Yet, when we act in the way he did, we bring a piece of salvation to the world. What we do when giving freely for the sake of the world has an immediate impact on everyone around us.
Like a stone dropped in the center of a pond, an authentic gift has a ripple effect which spreads across the pond. If you have received a true gift or given a true gift you know of its undeniable power. A true gift always has salutary and healing impact.
Returning to the gospel once more, it is also important to note that after healing the woman and many others, that Jesus departs to a deserted place to pray. This strongly suggests that we need to pray in quiet, which is to listen and not speak in order to hear the will of God—to act without listening to God’s will, what we would call contemplating, falls away from the pattern Jesus set for us.
As Epiphany, the season of the revelation of the light of Christ, comes to a close, we might take the time to see clearly what Jesus was doing in these healings— offering his gift freely and in turn, we might accept the invitation to offer up our own gifts—the very best and most precious gifts we possess which we are called to share.
Jesus was the divine gift with no equal, who went ahead so that we might follow in his footsteps.
What is it that you would like to offer up in recognition of the fact that your donum, your gift is graced and meant to convey offer something precious and life affirming to all those around you, and indeed, the whole world?
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George C. Wong
is the Rector