Philippians: redefining “gift”

As my final project for a class on Philippians, I’m working through a series of posts on Paul’s new vision of reality, and all the ways he redefines the word we thought we knew. You can read the introduction to the series here, and a bit of a “part 1” for this post here.

Philippians 4:14 – Yet it was good of you to share (sygkoinono) in my troubles… even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account… And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. 

Suddenly Paul is speaking in language we can understand. Credits and accounts – these are the kinds of relationships we’re familiar with. The extent to which everything in our society is commodified would have shocked even city-dwellers in the ancient world. We buy all of our food, we buy stories, we buy childcare, we buy houses with lots of privacy far from our families, and we buy plane tickets to go see them twice a year. It’s a pretty strange way to live life.

But Paul is not talking about literal credits in literal accounts. In fact, he’s talking about gifts here. I think to really understand the deal with gifts, we have to keep talking about koinonia.

A recap from the last koinonia post – Koinonia: partnership, sharing fellowship; in Philippians, a partnership, sharing, or fellowship for the sake of the gospel – both spreading it and living it out. It means that everyone is acting as one.

Possibly the most important way that Paul illustrates this is by calling the members of his churches “brothers and sisters” (using the word “brothers”, which also stood for “siblings”). To refer to one another as family was to accept a huge level of commitment and obligation to one another – to look after each other and to share together. It was such a strange thing to say at that time, the Christians would later be misunderstood and charged with incest.

Paul also asks the Philippians constantly to be of “one mind,” “one spirit”, to “stand together”, to “agree”. He doesn’t just want them to share their casseroles or a general sense of love for humanity or for Jesus; he literally wants them to share their basic way of thinking about the world in its entirety. It is a common sentiment in Roman literature that true friendship entails “likemindedness”, and Paul does not want the Philippians to be divided in any way. In chapter two, he repeats this nearly to the point of absurdity before telling them exactly what this way of thinking about the world should entail: make my joy complete by thinking in the same way, having the same love, of one spirit, thinking of the same aspirations… Have this way of thinking that was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant…

This is all because they are to share in something greater than themselves. Near the end of the letter, Paul asks Euodia and Syntyche to “have the same mind in the Lord”, and reminds the church that the two “have contended at Paul’s side in the cause of the gospel”. This gospel is what brought them together in the first place, and it should be their source of unity and agreement.

So. Koinonia. Sharing. Gifts.

In the United States, we have this big issue with receiving gifts. My friend came to town and bought me a beer the other day, and I tried not to feel all embarrassed and put out when she grabbed the check. But I did – forcing her to rationalize the whole deal: “you’re putting me up for the night, blah blah blah.” We almost never allow gifts to be gifts, and not transactions.

Maybe this is because we want things to be clear and well-defined, totally unambiguous. I contrast, people in Roman society gave gifts all the time; however, this was amidst a complex social system that expected some kind of reciprocity, but took so many factors into account that “reciprocity” meant something different in every single relationship.

I think there’s a temptation to say, in light of the stuff about Christ’s self-giving in Philippians 2, that we should all be really “unselfish” all the time, and give each other tons of gifts with no strings attached, and then to turn that into a limpid sort of metaphor because taking it literally is impossible. In real life, I can’t just give you stuff all the time or I would go bankrupt. It’s the same if a relationship has no reciprocity – I can keep giving and giving, fueled by a sort of pride at my unselfishness, for a while. But it will ultimately drain me. And I don’t think it’s what Paul is getting at when he talks about self-giving or encourages the Philippians for supporting him. Gift-giving in the context of koinonia does have a level of reciprocity to it; just not in a score-keeping, account-balancing, transactional way. It’s based on trust that my gift – my money, my favor, my time – will be used well and eventually returned in some way, because of how much we share. When we are one family, with one mind, sharing in the gospel and trusting in God to “meet all our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus”, gift-giving is obvious and easy, because we already hold so much in common.

Do Americans understand this? No. Plenty of people who are married hold separate bank accounts and pay separate bills; we are all into his and hers and the baby’s and the dog’s – not into sharing. But I’m not sure learning to share again just means giving a gift. I think, for a lot of us, it means receiving a gift. Letting yourself be in debt for a while. Being thankful someone else trusted you enough to share.

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