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In American culture, Christmas is the main time of the year when people exchange gifts with their families and friends. There may even be a bone under the tree for Bozo the Beagle, but we don’t expect a gift in return. People give gifts to show their love and respect, but sometimes also out of fear. That may be more like extortion, which is “the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats.”

We read in the Bible how the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon and “gave the king 120 talents[a] of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones.” Solomon reciprocated and “gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty” (1Kings 10.10-13). This was steroid gift-giving.

Sometimes kings would give enormous gifts of gold, silver, merchandise, cattle and so on (even women to become wives) to other kings to gain their favor. For example, “Joash king of Judah took all the sacred objects dedicated by his predecessors—Jehoshaphat, Jehoram and Ahaziah, the kings of Judah—and the gifts he himself had dedicated and all the gold found in the treasuries of the temple of the Lord and of the royal palace, and he sent them to Hazael king of Aram” (2 Kings 12.18). Kings made gifts to form alliances and to preserve their territories. They did not do so out of “a loving heart.”

The word “potlatch” refers to extreme gift giving as once practiced by Indian Tribes along the Pacific Northwest Coast. The Coquille Indians, for example, embraced the potlatch spirit of sharing with their neighbors. The practice was declared illegal in the late 19th century through the early-to-mid 20th century in both the U.S. and Canada, It seems that both governments did not understand the potlach traditions of the local Indigenous peoples and nations.

The ceremonial killing of hundreds of pigs is a precursor to large pork exchanges among the Kewa of Papua New Guinea. I have seen this in person and an anthropologist, John LeRoy, has written of its importance among the South Kewa. He notes that “the killing of pigs and the exchange of pork are conceptually more important than the eating.” The ceremonies that I witnessed among the Kewa involved the paying of debts and the gift-giving was a means of extracting loyalty and favors.

Santa Claus is the legendary figure in our culture who gives out gifts at Christmas. His popular image is associated with Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Christian saint and is similar to the role of Father Christmas in many European countries.

Of course, Americans have turned “giving gifts” into an enterprise. For example, there is a site called “How to earn money on reels with Instagram Gifts,” and once you are on board you can tap “gifts” that allows you to send and receive gifts.

Rewards are different than gifts. You have to earn a reward, and they do not need to be material. For example, in Genesis 15.1 we read that, “the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

In fact, “the Lord rewards everyone for their righteousness and faithfulness” (1 Samuel 26.23a) and David declares the “Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to my cleanness in his sight” 2 Samuel 22.25. That is a bold comment given his dalliance with Bathsheba.

The Lord can also reward us with wisdom. Consider Solomon, who prayed to God for it and got this answer: “Because you have asked this and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days” (1 Kings 3.11-13).

Will there be material rewards for Christians in heaven? There is obviously something like this going on because Jesus warned his listeners: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6.1). He also said, “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward” (Matthew 10.41).

What we do or do not do on earth will also be rewarded. Consider the following promises by Jesus: “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6.35). Our “works” do not save us, but they are noted: “The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor” (1 Corinthians 3.8).

A reward is also called a “prize” by Paul: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9.24).

Prizes and rewards--they are not on the same level as our gift from God, who gives those of us who believe on him eternal life. And that is not all: we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, who in turn has additional gifts for us.

Karl Franklin


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