What Connects Christmas to Giving to Those in Need?
Christmas is associated with giving, and many organizations take advantage of the season to urge people to donate. Sometimes the giving is encouraged because it is the end of the year and the final chance to give for tax purposes. Often, though, the push to give is specifically tied to Christmas. We’re accustomed to seeing people dressed up as Santa ringing bells next to Salvation Army kettle or being asked to use our Christmas shopping to donate gifts and toys to needy families.
A few years ago a news headline caught my interest. It said something like “Song writer apologizes for writing one of worst songs in the world.” The story was about Bob Geldof, who in 1984 wrote the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise money for Africa. It was recorded by several star musicians on the Band Aid track and raised a significant amount of money (it was the best-selling single in the world at the time) and you can hear it often at Christmas. The words encourage us to take time at Christmas to consider those who do not enjoy all the things we are enjoying. It ends with a repeated refrain to “Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time.” According to this song, we let people know that it is Christmas by feeding the world. (I apologize for getting one of the worst songs in the world stuck in your head now!)
But it’s not just songs designed to raise funds for charity that tie Christmas with giving to the poor. One of the most popular Christmas stories is Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. You’re aware of the story (and if not, spoiler alert and go read it right now!): Scrooge is a stingy man who hoards all his wealth and treats others with contempt. However, he is visited by 3 spirits (Christmas past, present, and future) who warn him of his future fate of being bound in chains through all eternity because of his cold-heartedness. After understanding his predicament and the true nature of Christmas, Scrooge determines to change and promises to honor Christmas in his heart and to keep it all year. As part of his determination he makes a large donation to the poor in the city and brings a gigantic turkey to provide a feast for his impoverished employee. Apparently, honoring Christmas in our heart and keeping it all year includes giving to those who are in need.
So, I’d like to consider the question: How is Christmas connected to helping those in need? In order to answer this question, let’s look at a passage that is not always associated with the Christmas story but is definitely connected to it: 2 Cor 8.
In 2 Cor 8–9, Paul is writing to the Corinthians to urge them to complete their collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem. He had given them instructions in how to gather the money in 1 Cor 16:1–4. Though the Corinthians were originally eager to participate, their desire had waned so they never finished the task. So Paul writes for them to complete the task before he returns, and sends Titus to help make sure it happens.
In giving them this instruction, Paul begins by pointing to the example of the Macedonians in 8:1–7. They were so poor that Paul did not originally plan on having them participate, but they were so intent on giving that they begged Paul and out of their overflowing joy God’s grace worked through them to provide a generous gift. In verse 8, Paul clarifies that he is not calling the Corinthians to participate on the basis of his command but as a test to prove the sincerity of their love. The reason Paul could call on them to prove the sincerity of their love by participating in this gift is given in verse 9, and is the verse that will help us to answer our question.
Christ was rich. The riches described here refer to Christ’s pre-incarnate state. As God, he possessed everything. He needed nothing from man because the whole earth is his. But is the focus here on material wealth? No, because Paul talks about believers being made rich, but the Macedonian believers experienced deep material poverty. Therefore, the concept is primarily about spiritual riches. Christ was rich spiritually in that he enjoyed the glories of heaven. He experienced perfect, sweet, and intimate fellowship with the Father and Spirit. He possessed infinite majesty and glory and enjoyed the praises of all heaven. Christ was immeasurably rich.
Christ became poor. This is a reference to Christ’s incarnation, the event we celebrate at Christmas. It is true that Christ became physically poor at the incarnation. He was not born to a wealthy family and did not enjoy great material provision during his life. However, the focus here is not really on material poverty, but on spiritual poverty. In his incarnation, Christ became poor by becoming human. He poured himself out by adding a human nature to his divine nature. He shared in our weaknesses and frailties.
Why did Christ become poor? Paul’s focus here is on the fact that Christ’s becoming poor was for the benefit of others. It was for your sake and mine that he came to earth. He left the glories of heaven to suffer on a cursed earth because of you.
Why would he become poor for our sake? Christ became poor so that we could become rich. As I pointed out earlier, Christ did not become materially poor so that we could become materially rich. Rather, he became spiritually poor so that we might become spiritually rich. What does it mean to say that we are spiritually rich? It means that we now share in the glories of Christ. We are seated with him in the heavenly places.
But how does that happen? I think the answer is found in an earlier section of 2 Corinthians that reflects similar phrasing. In 2 Cor 5:21, Paul teaches that Christ became sin for us so that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. In 6:1, he refers to this transaction as receiving the grace of God. So, his poverty means riches for us, because he became sin so that we might be made righteous. Thus, the ultimate act of becoming poor was to die on the cross, taking God’s wrath for our sin.
Why would Christ die to make us righteous? Christ became poor because of his grace. All of this is because of God’s grace. We were not people who deserved anything from Christ. Rather, we were people who deserved death. We were not spiritually rich—we were spiritually poor. We were destitute spiritually, and yet only by God’s grace are we made spiritually rich.
So why does Paul bring up Christ’s incarnation and death as a demonstration of his grace in this section? The reason that Paul brings this up is to ground his call for them to prove their love by giving to the poor believers in Jerusalem. Their understanding and experience of God’s grace was a key motivating factor for their participation. Jesus’ incarnation and death serve as a basis for our giving. What are some implications of that truth?
- Our giving should not be done based upon the worth of the individual or what they can do for us, since God did not give to us because we deserved it.
- Our giving is a tangible demonstration of our love for Christ and others. Sometimes it’s not the thought that counts! It doesn’t mean that a gift is the only means of expressing your love, but it is a tangible means.
- Our giving is a tangible demonstration that we don’t love material goods. When we give to others, it shows that we value them more than material goods, because we are willing to give our goods away.
- Our giving is a tangible demonstration that we realize we are debtors to God’s grace. We give because we realize that we have been given to.
- We don’t seek to meet the needs of others out of guilt, duty, or to benefit ourselves. Band Aid and Dickens miss the real significance of Christmas in relation to giving to those in need.
- Christian giving stems from the satisfaction we have in Christ. Because we are already rich in Christ through no doing of our own, we can gladly give to meet the needs of others. We are merely sharing in the grace given to us.
Christmas is a great time to consider how Jesus’ birth is related to giving to the poor. Christmas provides the proper understanding for giving to those in need: Our riches through Christ’s grace motivate us to give to others. We don’t give to others because we have a lot and they don’t. Nor do we give simply to honor Christmas and avoid a horrible future. We give because we are content and joyful in the riches we have received from Christ and gladly long to meet the needs of others. Because we “know the grace of God. That Christ, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor. So that we, through his poverty, might be made rich.”