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The value of a gift

You’ve been volunteering in a poor country. On departure day, a villager with whom you have worked gives you a piece of her jewelry as a gesture of enduring friendship. It’s important to her that you accept the gift, but you think it could be worth a lot of money. Should you accept it?

By Lee Simpson and Kevin Little

Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.


British Columbia’s Haida Indians radically disrupt longhouse life to host a potlatch feast. Italians offer guests more and better food and drink than they can afford for themselves.

What is this spirit that makes us want to give away that which causes sacrifice in an effort to mark the moment? Surely, it is the Spirit.

What then is the appropriate response?

To deny the gesture would be a denial of the generosity that provokes it, and clearly wrong. You, the volunteer worker, would definitely cause pain by rejecting or even questioning the gift.

However, acceptance carries obligations: it is necessary to sort out the meaning versus the value of the present.

The meaning of the gift requires an immediate quid pro quo worthy of the event. Whether it is best to give a deep bow, a speech or a hug can be determined by cultural norms. Do not neglect the surroundings. If this was a public gesture, your response should also be public: there may be expectations that need to be observed.

If you choose to offer a gift in response, it must be equally thoughtful. Should you take off your Timex or is that book of Canadian photography more appropriate? This is a hard call in the abstract; let the moment dictate. This isn’t a time for one-upmanship.

Later, you can deal with the value of the gift. Regardless of monetary value in your society, the villager has given something of worth in hers. What can you do now? What is it her village requires? Can she be the conduit for something they desperately need? If the village lacks educational resources, your church can provide supplies. If they need a well dug, maybe you could plan a fundraiser. Let your friend know that it is her gift that inspired these plans. Let her share the information as she wishes.

Our whole faith stems from an act of sacrifice. In that light, there is never shame in accepting another’s gift.

Author's photo
Rev. Kevin Little is a minister at St. Luke’s United in Upper Tantallon, N.S.


Yes. Relationships are based on mutuality and respect, and for me to gratefully receive a treasured gift like this would mean a lot to my new friend. To place a dollar value on it and to let this be the first thing that comes to mind only reveals my middle-class bias. Being middle-class, I also know what my next thought would be: How can I “make it up to her,” so that there is no imbalance, especially given the wealth differential that exists between our two communities?

Luke 14 says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers (and sisters) or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

Giving is not merely about reciprocity. Both giving and receiving are about grace. As a middle-class person, I have found this to be the most challenging doctrine of the Christian church to understand and embody. I am conditioned to give as I get and get as I give, to work hard and play by the rules and then to be rewarded (the Protestant work ethic). In this belief system, if my neighbour does likewise, that person deserves my gratitude and generosity.

Grace means that I was loved from the beginning as a gift, without conditions, no strings attached. Grace cuts through my conventional quid pro quo ideology.

This expensive gift reminds me of the Gospel story of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet. Hers was a gift of grace, and Jesus is moved to accept it and convey thanks. There is no record of Jesus racing out to the nearest gift shop to “even up the score” with his new friend.

My villager friend has made a gesture of friendship. My response is to respect our mutuality, to receive her gift, and to let the experience illuminate and broaden my middle-class perspective.
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