The Giver in the Gift – Fr. Tom McKenna

by | Aug 2, 2015 | Formation, Reflections

McKenna, Father Tom

“The Giver In The Gift” – From what to who [Jn. 6, 24-35]

Some years ago, there was a bestselling book entitled “My Grandfather’s Blessing.” It was about a relationship between a Jewish girl and her grandparent, who happened to be a Rabbi. As a sidebar theme, it touched on the transformation that happened in the girl’s expectation of what she was looking for from her grandfather. In the beginning, you might describe her wants as “things,” presents and gifts. Or maybe “feelings,” his personal attention, a kind look. She painted him as somewhat stern and so she often longed for some visible affirmation, even some little approving glance. If you asked her then what she wanted from him, (i.e., his blessing) it would be these kinds of “things.”

But as the years went by, the object of her wants slowly changed. More and more, she came more to appreciate the insides of the man, so to speak, his character, the way he moved through the world, how he saw reality. You could say the shift was away from the “things” he might give her, and over to who he was. And as the book progressed, it was just this interior self that turned out to be “the blessing”; i.e., the breakthrough of the person behind the face who possessed this benevolent way of being in the world, a mostly hidden gift for loving who and what he saw there, a down deep compassion and large-heartedness. The memoir was a story of her gradual move past the what of the gift to the who of it, past the giving of it to the attitude of the person giving it. The woman came to see through the gift to the benevolence of the giver. Feeling this, she could take in the real blessing her Grandfather was bestowing all along.

We’ve heard a version of that “what-are-you-looking-for” question in this gospel. It’s Jesus who’s asking it and He’s telling the crowd that their reasons for following Him across the lake aren’t all that noble or holy. “The reason you’re out looking for me,” Jesus says, “is not because you saw any deeper meaning in my multiplying the loaves and fishes yesterday, but simply because you want more loaves and fishes!” Or in John’s code language, you didn’t read the “signs;” you missed the fuller sense of what was really going on there through that impressive happening.

But then Jesus turns the question around — from the what to the who. “This miracle, my feeding the 5000 hungry people? Yes, it was about what they got. But the truth is that it was about a whole lot more. Beyond the bread put in their hands, it was even more about me, the miracle-maker. And even beyond that, it was about the one who sent me.”

Then Jesus widens the point by going back to Moses leading his people through the Sinai wilderness and there providing them with bread and meat. But he doesn’t stop with Moses and the manna in the desert. “It wasn’t he who gave you the bread from heaven; it was my Father who gave it then and who right now is giving you this true ‘bread from heaven’.” And then there’s Jesus’ one step further:“I myself am this all-nourishing bread.” In short, the challenge is to see through the bread to the giver of the bread.

To say it again, in their response to, “what do people want?” the people cry out, “give us this thing, bread.” And in answer to that, Jesus responds, “What I’m giving is more than a thing. It’s my very own person. I am the bread – the bread of life.”

So here in this other setting, we’ve again moved from a what to a who. The thing given, the nourishing bread, opens up onto the giver of all bread, the loving Father of Jesus, now working through Him.

This same transition (going from a thing to a person) can be seen as a kind of overall framework for John’s entire gospel. Back in the first chapter, a pair of John the Baptist’s disciples are following behind Jesus. He turns around to them and puts this same “What are you looking for?” question to them. And in a real way, all the rest of John’s gospel tells of people’s struggle to give better and deeper answers to that question.

So again, Jesus’ words to the people who rowed across the lake to see him: “What did you come looking for?” And then the way Jesus flips the question around: “The real point at issue is: whom it is you’ve come looking for.” Jesus’ answer is one which they can’t take in: “Who you’re looking for — down deep — is My Father, the one who in Me gives you the true bread from heaven.

This theme of going from “what” to “whom” comes to its climax at the end of the story in the scene where Mary Magdalen is crying her eyes out in the garden outside Jesus’ tomb. Mary thinks the person coming up in front of her is the gardener. But we hear this gardener repeating this very question to her: “Whom are you looking for?” It’s the opening entreaty of the gospel — but now changed from a what to a who. And now it’s a person seeing through this seemingly ordinary gardener in front of her to who it is who’s really there. She’s seeing through the gift to the giver.

Some take-aways for us? One is that the real treasure inside any gift is its giver. Without the good will and love of the person behind the gift, the gift can come off as just a flat transaction (sometimes with the subtle message that you now have to give me a gift in return). Even worse it can be a kind of insult to the receiver: “We can’t make enough to feed ourselves and so we have put out hands asking for your charity. To take what you’re giving us, we have to swallow down a sizeable piece of our dignity.” For these kinds of messages not be conveyed, the regard and respect and love of the giver somehow has to be wrapped up inside that gift.

Vincent de Paul had a high sensitivity to this. Most always on the distributing side of the table, he was uncomfortable, delicate, and even at times embarrassed by his giving. The scholars are not sure he actually said these words, but they surely are in his spirit. He’s reputed to have said:

“You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give bread and soup. This the rich can do… You are the servant of the poor… It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.”

This is an often quoted Vincentian-Family way of underlining that same gospel theme: the most important and healing thing about a gift is seeing through it to the love of the giver behind it.

So the young girl coming to the realization that what she wanted most was to see behind the sternness in the grandfather’s face into the warmth and breadth of his heart. And then those people at the shore line with Jesus, some of them hopefully catching a hint of his meaning; “the bread in front of you is something more than it seems to be. There’s a giver in back of this gift, coming through this gift. And, I call him my Father.” And isn’t that just what happens with Mary in the garden. She sees past the surface appearance to whom it is who’s coming to her and not just anonymously, but calling her by her very own name.

And then there’s you and I, each of us coming to receive Communion on a Sunday. What is that in front of us? It’s a small circular flat piece of bread. But we believe, and our whole long tradition sees, that there’s something more here, much more, and in fact someone much more. What I receive in my hand is gift, but the whole action of the Eucharist around it points all the arrows to who is behind the gift, who is in the gift, who is giving the gift. And that of course is the all loving Father of Jesus, in Christ, who as with Mary in the Garden is giving us His own Self and is doing so by calling out to you and me, each by our own name.

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