In the Acts of the Apostles, we come across a behavior that is not quite self-explanatory. There are members of the community who seem to be wealthy and own property. But instead of holding onto what they own, they give it away to others who don’t have as much and especially to the most needy. What motivates that kind of exchange; i.e., one person who has, giving away to those who have not?
Any number of explanations are possible, all the way from having a guilty conscience to feeding a wish to be admired. But in these first generation Christians, something else is going on, and it finds its logic in what has recently happened to them. They give to others out of a sense of how much they themselves have been given. Their generosity is fueled by their awareness of the lavish generosity already shown them. Or in the language of a current phrase, they are not paying something back, so much as they are “paying it forward.”
It’s a phrase that catches the deeper meaning of what is unfolding in an earlier gospel scene (Jn 20:19-31). On the evening of the first day of the week, a group of anxious people are gathered in a locked room. The resurrected Jesus appears, stands in their midst, and utters these soothing but strength-laden words, “Peace be with you.”
This peace He offers is nothing less than God’s own life, certainly as it fills Jesus, but also, through His Spirit, as it flows out of Him and into the lives of all those in that room. What has been given (and freely given) to those frightened disciples is the strength and light of the divine Presence. Because of Jesus, His suffering and death and resurrection, they are being made children of God — and all this as pure gift. As gift, it is to be given away.
Years later, that Christian community in the Acts follows in that same spirit. Their generosity to the needy is powered by their awareness of the generosity already showered on them. In the words of our phrase, they are not paying back the gift; they are paying it forward. They are bountiful to others out of their awareness of the bounty already poured out on them. They pay it forward to the needy among them.
Their action is a lesson to all generations since — and one certainly imprinted in our Family heritage. Vincent counsels, “Let us often give ourselves to God so as to obtain from His Goodness the generosity needed to advance His glory.” We give not only because it’s the noble thing to do. We give because we have been given, and are being given.
True all through life, it shows itself especially in what we do as we gather for the Eucharist. In it we are once again coming into that upper room, hearing and feeling the reassuring power of the Lord’s presence. He once more is giving us His special peace, His new life. Over and over His Spirit is encouraging us to “pay it forward,” to give from the bounty of what we have already been given.