The Price of a Sandwich: It is Better to Give AND to Receive

Yesterday, I had a chance to visit my old stomping grounds – Vanderbilt University.  Nashville is one the way from my house to seminary, so when I’m driving alone I tend to drop in and see how the old University Catholic crowd is doing.  Nobody seemed to be around, I decided to give myself a tour of my old campus.  After a while, I bumped into Anne, an old friend who works for Vanderbilt Dining as a self-described “coffee lady,” and who always makes her student customers feel at home.  Since it was time for her lunch break anyway, she took some time to hang to hang out with me and even offered to buy me lunch.

“You want somethin’ honey?”  Since I already had some food in my car and didn’t want to impose her notoriously meager salary as a Vanderbilt Dining employee, I just said “No thanks, I’m fine.”  Instantly, the smile left her face and I knew I had made a mistake.  Counting on her good humor, I said, “Well, if ‘no’ means you’re going to feel dejected about it, then yes!” – and I let her buy me a sandwich.  A few minutes later, we were sitting down to lunch and I told her how good the sandwich was.  “It’s alright for what it is,” she said, pointing out that it was actually pretty bland, but she’d gotten the point:  I was grateful to have been given something to eat.  “You never know who’s going to be taking care of you,” she said.

Where Anne was generous yesterday, I had been stingy just a few days before.  Last week, a man approached me at a gas station asking for some “help”; I flatly rejected him without even hearing him out.  Maybe he wanted a sandwich.  Maybe he needed a sandwich’s worth of gas to keep his job for another day; I’ll never know.

Today, I tried again to refuse a gift.  Last night, walking across the Josephinum parking lot after a long trip back to school, I accidentally dropped about $1000 of camera equipment onto concrete with little to no protection.  I’m not sure how much damage there is, because I’m afraid to look.  Today at lunch, a seminary official offered to reimburse me for any needed replacements so that I could continue to work as the house photographer.  My immediate response was, “No thanks, I don’t need it.”

But what about the guy at the gas station!?

What am I trying to prove?

We love, because he first loved us.
(1 John 4:19)

I’ve always suspected that the love of money was the root of all evil – but isn’t gratitude for money the root of giving money to other people who need it?

Fr. John Sims Baker, the Catholic chaplain at Vanderbilt, likes to say, “What’s the first thing you do with a gift? … ‘You open it?’  No, you don’t open it. … You take it!

What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?
(1 Corinthians 4:8)

Generous people take gifts.  Stingy people refuse gifts, so that they won’t have anything extra to give anybody!  It’s all very mathematical!

My favorite character in the best musical ever (Les Misérables) is Javert – the bad guy – because I’ve always found him very relatable.  I like him because he’s the best at what he does, he is uncompromising in the pursuit of justice and right, and he doesn’t take handouts (i.e. mercy) from anybody. Why?  To him, handouts encourage weakness, and make personal victories illegitimate.

super mario starFor example:  one time, when I was little, a cousin came over to play “Super Mario 64” and win a few “stars” for me.  I respectfully asked that she not win any “stars” for me because I wanted to earn them myself.  It wasn’t that I wanted to play the missions myself; I could go back and to that any time.  I simply didn’t want my personal victory (winning the game) to be illegitimate because someone else had helped me.

But guess what?  Real life doesn’t work like that, because God – the giver of all gifts – doesn’t work like that.  Nobody saves himself from sin by himself.  Nobody is in the Mystical Body of Christ by himself.  Nobody gets to heaven by himself.   You just can’t.  We need Christ, and we also need one another.  As St. Francis says, “It is in giving that we receive” – but I am finding out that it is also in receiving with gratitude that we learn how to give.

So why not make our lives a little bit more like heaven and a little bit less like Super Mario, huh?  But if you ever want to give me a “star”, that’s okay by me.

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