I mean, of course I’m going to say that I’m not as bad as other people. But I’m a pretty selfish person. Just ask my family.
And yet, I have been contemplating the words attributed to Jesus by Paul in Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Though we do not have the exact situation for this saying recorded in Scripture but we also have no reason to doubt Paul. John himself closes his Gospel by telling us that there are other things that happened that were not written down (John 20:30). In fact, so many other things that if they were all written down, the world couldn’t even hold the books (John 21:25).
Paul, though, certainly attributes this saying to Jesus. So it might help to initially ask if this is something in keeping with the known teachings and sayings of Jesus that we do have. It certainly seems to be in line with other sayings from Jesus. For example, Matthew 20:28 reminds us that the Son of Man: “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” But Jesus didn’t just talk the talk, He walked the walk, actually laying down His life for the sake of others. All, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us (Hebrews 12:2), Jesus went to the Cross for the joy set before Him.
But Jesus is God! How can I be expected, as Paul commands in Philippians 2, to consider others as more significant than myself? I mean, after all, it’s survival of the fittest, right? If I don’t look out for number one, number two will become number one, then I’ll be number two!
But Jesus replaces our natural inclinations. He replaces our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36). And by laying not only His “rights” but His life down, He frees me from the chains of selfishness and reveals to me a new way of living and loving. Jesus demonstrates for us that love, by definition, seeks the benefit of others. This is a difficult thing to grasp, because it seems so foreign that it really is better to give than to receive.
And yet there’s a bit of everyday wisdom here, isn’t there? My mother-in-law says that when you do something nice, it makes you feel good under your left rib. But, are warm fuzzies really enough to convince me that I should put others before myself? I mean, though having eight kids, is a lot of work, it can be quite tiring, as much as I love the kids. What if there’s something deeper than an emotional response from serving others? What if this is what it means to be truly human after all? Rather than seeking our own benefit, what if we have been created, not only to exist in community, but to serve others. And, as we serve others, our community becomes stronger, and as the community becomes stronger, we also become stronger.
What if our real good is not found in getting ahead, but in helping others get ahead? Could this be part of the reason that God tells Israelite captives in Babylon to seek the welfare of their captors’ city because in the city’s good they will find their own good (Jeremiah 29)? And as we place others before ourselves, we are not displaying that we have become partakers of the divine nature, as the Spirit in us enables us to live as God commands.
What if Jesus meant what He said? There’s only one way to find out. Let’s all go out and serve others. Let’s prefer giving to receiving. And then let’s come back and talk about it.