After the opening song to the 1954 musical White Christmas, two entertainers-turned-soldiers, Captain Bob Wallace and Private Phil Davis, run for cover from enemy bombers. After Davis shields Wallace from a collapsing wall and is wounded, Wallace asks how he can repay Davis for saving his life. From that point on, Davis freely cashes in on Wallace’s obligation until Wallace begins to wish the wall had just fallen on him. “If you’re ever under a falling building and someone offers to pick you up and carry you to safety, don’t think, don’t pause, don’t hesitate for a moment, just spit in his eye,” he says. In other words, he’d rather die than be constantly manipulated by a debt he can never repay.

Maybe you have a Phil Davis in your life. Someone who reminds you constantly of what they have spent for your sake. A friend who helped you move, a boss who wrote a generous recommendation letter, a mom who gives inexplicably lavish Christmas presents. You may be fully aware that you’re being manipulated, but good luck freeing yourself from debtors prison. Lord knows a simple “thanks” will not suffice!

War scene from "White Christmas"

Christmas gift-giving can often be a metaphor for how we treat each other the other 364 days of the year. Presents can morph from expressions of love and affection to bartering tools. These days especially, with products specifically catered to our exact lifestyles, the golden rule is no longer “it’s the thought that counts.” Rather, it’s the thing — the specific thing that I clearly put on my Amazon wish list — that counts. In that sense, gifts with any strings are no gifts at all, but investments. It may be better to give than to receive, but we are often prone to give in order to receive.

The obligation to give back easily carries over to one’s perception of God. How much obedience will suffice in return for saving your soul? Are you appreciative of the price God paid for you? Are you treating God’s gift with enough care? Are you being a good enough steward, or are you squandering your wealth? Even beloved hymns pay tribute to the debtor’s ethic to Christianity — O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Ask these questions enough times, and you’ll want the nearest wall to come crashing down on you.

Naught-nice Santa ClausBut what do you get the person who has everything? For starters, their life already seems complete (at least compared to yours). Even giving something as a gesture can feel a bit boorish. I once gave my dinner hosts a bottle of wine only to realize that, judging by their expressions, my price range was far below their standards. I was trying to be grateful — impressive, even — but came across as cheap. I’m not savvy enough to discern whether it’s better to go above and beyond or give nothing at all, but I quickly learned that the best hospitality isn’t meant to be repaid, but received.

Is there anyone in your life who has blessed you beyond measure? Someone who you couldn’t possibly thank enough? There are some people in my life who have done infinitely more for me and my family than I have ever thought to ask. At the end of each occasion for a thank you letter, it feels almost silly. Am I really doing this again, expressing gratitude for something that cost far more than a measly note? It reminds me of the Johnny Cash Christmas song, “We Are the Shepherds.” At the end of the song, the shepherds present a little candle to give Jesus:
We beg you forgive us for such a small offering
But our sheep are out there with wolves in the night
We bring you this candle it’s all we have with us
But with it the new Savior has his first light
Jesus is the Creator of the universe and they’re offering him a re-gifted T.J. Maxx candle. I’m sure Mary and Joseph were gracious about it, but hopefully the shepherds arrived before the three wise men presented their fancy gifts to save them the awkwardness. In their defense, at least the shepherds know they’re cheapskates. “We bring you this candle because…well, it’s been lying in our glove compartment for three years,” they humbly admit. Then again, what else could they have given God that is more worthy for him to receive? Give Jesus the moon, the Northern Lights, or Victoria Falls, and he’ll remind you that they were already his, that he, in fact, created them.

funny Wise men meme

Thankfully, Jesus makes it clear that he did not come to be served, but to serve. He is not interested in your wealth, but in your poverty. He knows that whatever you have to give that is truly valuable came from him in the first place — generosity, humility, love. He is blown away by a widow giving two coins. He is impressed by a Samaritan leper who throws himself at Jesus’ feet to thank him when nine other healed lepers never looked back. Jesus understands that gratitude is the only thing to give when you have nothing else. And he receives it gladly.

In this sense, Jesus is a wealthy benefactor, someone whose gift could never be reimbursed. He is delighted to display both his wealth and his generosity. A feeble attempt to repay him with a cheap bottle of wine will only come across as tacky (after all, he could make a better vintage out of water). So what do you give the Person who has everything? True belief and true repentance. If not, a simple “thank you” will do just fine. At the end of the day, all we have to offer is gratitude. Thankfully, it’s the only gift that God receives.