Wealth, gifts and Christmas
A version of this article was first published: The Australian - December 1997
Those of us who are familiar with the original Christmas story will recall the role played by three minor characters who turn up in Bethlehem bearing expensive gifts. Having followed an unidentified stellar object across half the known world, the three wise men find themselves standing in a rather ordinary manger; offering gold, frankincense and myrrh to a recently swaddled infant who is much admired by the attendant livestock.
Despite its antiquity, aspects of this story continue to trouble a number of people. For example, there are lingering questions about the legitimacy of a claim to wisdom made by men lured from the comfort of their beds by a display of celestial gimcrackery. Concerns about the rationality of abandoning a comfortable life of contemplation in favour of a difficult pilgrimage across the desert would seem to miss the point. Instead, we should be focusing on the nature of the gifts borne by the three wise men.
In their defense, it must be admitted that the three set off in the belief that they were bound to meet the more usual sort of Middle Eastern king. In all fairness, it should also be conceded that, in those days at least, the more usual sort of Middle Eastern king would have been looking to receive truly fabulous gifts – like gold (which, believe it or not, used to be worth a fair bit), frankincense and myrrh.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, it now seems that the three visitors were singularly unwise when they set the whole Christmas gift-giving exercise off to such a bad start.
For example, we might imagine that the subsequent life and teachings of Jesus would have left them feeling more than a little foolish and embarrassed. A concern for the luxuries of life never seem to have been, for Him, a high priority – a point that can hardly have been lost on the Magi. I wonder if they ever regretted their choice of gifts to carry across the desert nights. I wonder if they spent the rest of their lives denying that they were ‘those’ three wise men.
Despite what seems to have been a pretty spectacular act of poor judgement on their part, many of us will follow their example, this Christmas, and judge the worth of our giving by estimating the richness of our gifts. That we do so, in this day and age, should not be all that surprising. As many observers have noted, ours is a time in which the sole criterion for success is wealth. This, in itself, need not be such a bad thing. It all depends on what we count as 'wealth". Unfortunately, our society seems to have become one-eyed in its measurement of wealth against an index of relative scarcity.
Most of the commodities in today's 'basket of wealth' are included as a result of demand outstripping supply. Diamonds hold their commercial value for as long the control of supply ensures their rarity. Saturate the market and these shiny, little rocks would be worthless bits of compressed carbon. And so it is with prestige cars, boats, houses, haute couture and a whole lot more. Even fine art and rare books come to be appreciated more for what they are worth than what they are. To preserve their position in the contemporary pecking order of relative worth, valuable objects must be desired by the many while being affordable for only the few.
There is nothing especially sinister or immoral about any of this. Indeed, the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' is one of the engines of progress. When not distorted to the extent that it triggers envy, the uneven allocation of material goods can excite in us some of the best aspects of competition.
Even so, we should be wary of those trends in society that lead people to believe that the possession of rare and expensive artefacts is the measure of true worth. We should be wary of this standard because it masks and divides our common humanity. And we should be wary because it is quite unnecessary.
There are some goods, what we might call ‘common goods’, that each of us can enjoy to the greatest extent without ever depriving another of the opportunity to have the same. Think of friendship. If there were only a hundred people in the world, every one of them could have ninety-nine friends. Each would be equally rich, if this were the measure of wealth.
There are many other things that are available to us as ‘common goods’. Any number of people can enjoy; a good name, the peaceful sleep with an easy conscience, the discovery of deep and abiding meaning in their lives or the knowledge of what it means to be loved. Perhaps it is the very 'ordinariness' of such things that makes them seem so unremarkable as objects of desire. Perhaps it is our individual desire to be separate and special that makes us ignore those things which all can enjoy as equals. Who knows?
As Christmas comes, each of us has the capacity to offer a gift of immense value to those we care about. What is the price of a smile, a caring look, the touch of a hand, a kind word? Nothing. Yet, any of these can make the world of difference to another. These 'common goods' and the things they bring in their wake, are not the property of any religion, time or culture. They are the inheritance of all.
After we strip away all of the signs and symbols that we use to divide ourselves from each other we find, at the core, the things we share. Different people will find these things in different ways. I like to imagine that the Magi found them in the eyes of an innocent and vulnerable child. If so, then they were truly wise.