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Commemoration of Benefactors - 5 February 2017

Ian McFarlandTrinity Hall Commemoration of Benefactors

5 February 2017

Address given by Ian McFarland, Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge

Giving, Receiving, and Giving Thanks

We have just heard two very different biblical texts.  The first, from 1 Samuel, seems to fit the theme of commemorating benefactors very well, with its description of Hannah’s pious dedication of her young son to God’s service.  A generous benefaction indeed!  And in contrast to the terrors of child sacrifice that mark the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Isaac or Jephthah and his unnamed daughter, the story of Hannah’s gift exudes nothing but cosy, familial warmth.  Indeed, if we were to read on a little further, we’d hear how each year Hannah would make for Samuel ‘a little robe and take it to him’ when ‘she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice’, and how each year, in what we might see as an ancient equivalent to this commemoration service ‘Eli would bless Elkanah and Hannah’, praying that the Lord would repay them both for the gift they had made (2:19-20).  It’s a restful story of devout giving and grateful receiving, in which God seems to smile on everyone concerned, and all is well with the world.

By contrast, our lesson from Hebrews has a somewhat harried quality: things seem much more on edge.  As the lesson opens God has definitely not been smiling.  On the contrary, the verses just before those we’ve heard tell how because of God’s anger at the Israelites’ disobedience after their exodus from Egypt, their ‘bodies fell in the wilderness’ (3:17) instead of finding rest in the promised land.  And with this frightening example in mind, the writer urges us to gird up our loins and ‘make every effort to enter [God’s] rest’, lest we, too, fall ‘through such disobedience as theirs’.  And just in case we’re tempted to think that it might be possible to sneak in by dissembling or deception, the writer warns us that ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow’, judging ‘the thoughts and intentions of the heart’, so that ‘before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare’.  Here all is evidently not well with the world, and our destiny seems poised precariously on a knife-edge.

Now, one way to handle the tension between these two very different readings would be simply to link them as promise and threat: a message that acts of true generosity will be rewarded (as described in 1 Samuel), while disobedience will lead to sure and swift destruction (following Hebrews).  Do well and you will prosper; do wickedly, and you will suffer the consequences.  But although this way of putting things may seem at first glance to give us a clear and obvious choice, on a little reflection it’s not evident that the options presented are especially helpful, for when faced with a God who so ‘judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ as to leave nothing hidden, can any of us really be confident that any of our efforts are as selfless, and thus as worthy of reward, as Hannah’s?  And when applied to the dynamics of benefaction, this worry touches those who receive gifts as much as the benefactors themselves, since the motives of the receiver in such exchanges seem likely to be even less pure than those of the giver. 

In this way, the words of Hebrews raise in a disturbing fashion the question of what exactly we’re doing on days of commemoration such as this.  Is it the case, perhaps, that solemn expressions of thanks for persons long dead, with little if any attention to the source of their riches or the circumstances surrounding their gifts, serves as rather tenuous and uncertain cover for consciences that should be far more uneasy about the sources of institutional wealth.  And when we move to the living, to what extent is it all just a matter of toadying up to the donors of the present day, in the hope of eliciting further gifts?  Seen from this perspective, the whole exercise of commemorating benefactors seems a colossal moral hazard on both sides: donors and recipients alike faced with questions of mixed motives and self-seeking in the pursuit of one another’s good will.  Do any of us really want to contemplate what it all looks like in the eyes of a God before whom ‘all are naked and laid bare’?

To see how serious the problem is, consider that even the warm glow of Hannah’s benefaction loses much of its lustre upon further investigation.  It seems pretty clear from the reading that Elkanah, at least, is initially uneasy about the whole affair – and why shouldn’t he be?  For it turns out that Hannah’s ‘offering’ of Samuel isn’t a spontaneous act of generosity after all, but a simple case of tit for tat.  For she had been barren and desperate for a child, so wearied by the taunts thrown at her by Peninah, Elkanah’s other wife, over her childlessness that she made a bargain with God: ‘if only,’ she promised, ‘you will…not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death’ (v. 11).  So the offering of Samuel is no benefaction at all, really – just a payment for services rendered.

And what about the priest Eli, the recipient of Hannah’s ‘benefaction’?  Well, it turns out that he’s anything but the saintly soul we might imagine from the portion of the narrative that we’ve heard.  We first meet him just a little earlier in the chapter, when Hannah, having finally had enough of years of her rival’s insults, flees to the sanctuary to pray.  She is so choked with emotion that ‘only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard’.  Eli, seeing her ‘thought she was drunk’ and, in an exquisite example of pastoral insensitivity (ordinands take note!), said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine’ (v 14).  And it gets worse.  For we soon discover that Eli is not only a self-righteous twit, but also that his ministry is thoroughly corrupt and stands condemned by God, who solemnly declares: ‘I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever’ (3:13-14).

Now, if even Hannah’s offering turns out to be so badly compromised, what hope is there for us in our institutional practices of giving and receiving?  ‘Benefaction’ means ‘doing good’, but if even Hannah’s gift is tainted, there would seem ample reason to be doubtful how much good is really to be found in any benefaction, if you scratch a little beneath the surface.  Perhaps it would be better quietly to abandon the whole enterprise of commemorating benefactors, to let the dead bury their dead (as someone once suggested), and move on to other matters.

Now, you’ll be relieved to hear that I don’t think this is how we should proceed – and not just because Mrs McFarland didn’t raise any children so impolite as to come as a guest to someone else’s college and trash their Commemoration of Benefactors service.  For in addition to considerations of basic civility, there are good evangelical reasons why the rather dismal picture I’ve presented thus far cannot be allowed to be the last word on the commemoration of benefactors. 

This isn’t to say that the moral hazards I’ve identified are illusory or inconsequential: there’s plenty of room for frank and honest discussion about the ‘politics’, for lack of a better word, of fundraising on the one hand and charitable giving on the other.  Yet such discussion, however important, can’t be the last word, any more than frank and honest acknowledgement of human beings’ propensity for dishonesty should cause us to dismiss the possibility of speaking the truth.  Because in a world where national newspapers advocate the elimination of foreign aid, a world in which nations turn their backs on refugees, a world where many of the richest spend fortunes to establish fortified redoubts to protect their wealth in fear of imminent apocalypse, the grateful acknowledgement of those who give away their wealth to benefit others is needed now more than ever.

To be sure, it’s true that the word of God judges ‘the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ so as to leave nothing hidden.  And for that reason we dare not trust to our own goodness of heart when giving gifts or receiving them.  When ‘all are naked and laid bare’, there is none of us who will be able to give an adequate account of his stewardship, not Hannah, not Eli, not Lady Margaret Beaufort or William Bateman, and not you or I.  But our lesson from Hebrews doesn’t end with this stark reminder of our own inabilities and shortcomings, but with the good news of Jesus.  For although it’s true that God’s sharp, piercing, living and active word judges until it lays everything bare, it is also true that we have a great high priest who intercedes on our behalf, who, because he has been ‘in every respect tested as we are’, is able ‘to sympathise with our weaknesses’, knowing our faults and forgiving them.

With our mixed and flawed motives, our self-interest, our vanity and our fears, we have no basis for presumption before the throne of God.  Quite the contrary.  But we are not for that reason to give up, to despair of doing good, to resign ourselves to an existence that is incapable of advancing beyond the narrow confines of calculated self-interest.  Far from making us timid or despondent, our neediness, the writer of Hebrews tells us, should inspire us to ‘approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’. Our giving and our receiving are undoubtedly flawed, but we are nevertheless to give and receive boldly, for it is God and not ourselves who ensures the goodness of our giving and receiving; and although it’s not in our power to ensure that what we do will be to the good, it is in God’s power to do so, and it’s in that power that we should trust.

With that in mind, let’s turn back one last time to the story of Hannah’s gift.  As I’ve already noted, it’s a much more ambiguous affair, in terms of the motivations and merits of those giving and receiving, than appears to be the case at first glance.  Yet consider that whatever Hannah thought she was giving or Eli thought he was receiving, the gift remained, and its significance turned out to be far greater than either Hannah or Eli could have imagined.  For we read that as ‘Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord’ (3:19-20), so much so, in fact, that it was through Samuel that God called and anointed kings for Israel, first Saul, and then David, the great king, from whose line would come that same high priest through whom we now are called to be bold to do what good we can, not in the presumption that our motives are pure or that we can see the outcome of what we venture, but in faith that the goodness of the gift does not lie with the virtue of the giver or of the receiver, but with the one who is able to ensure beyond the capacity of either that what is given and received both can and will work for the good.

So let us give thanks, before God and this assembly, for all those, present and absent, living and dead, who have been benefactors to this college.  Not because either their giving or the institution’s receiving has been perfect, but because all giving is a stepping out on faith, a recognition that one is not in control, that what is given, in the very act of being given, finally eludes the giver’s capacity to know or ensure its outcome.  To give is to seek to benefit a recipient, but in the final analysis no one can see at the moment of giving what that benefit will look like: which scholars will be supported by an endowment, how a building will serve the community, what sort of student will on the strength of a gift be sustained in a time of crisis.  Against that background, a gift, however small or large, is an act of courage and of hope, whatever else it may also be.  And that there are and, by God’s grace, may continue to be persons who, amid the ever-present temptations to selfishness and fear that mark life in this world, are willing to make such gifts, to surrender some portion of their own security to help to secure the well-being of others, is something for which we may and ought to be truly thankful.  Amen.

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