31 October, Monday – Reciprocity: The Burden of Debt

Monday of Week 31 in Ordinary Time

Phi 2:1-4

Lk 14:12-14

“No, when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; that they cannot pay you back means that you are fortunate…”

Jesus urged the Pharisee in today’s gospel reading to invite those who do not have the ability to repay, as opposed to those of similar social status; in case they may reciprocate the invitation and thus the repayment is obtained. Instead of viewing the reciprocity as a form of repayment, we can actually delve into this from the perspectives of both the wealthy and the poor.

Reciprocity has been traditionally treated in the sociological context as a force of integration that keeps network members tied together through a complex web of obligations and interdependencies. For those in a certain social and wealth status, the cycle of exchanges is established via the expectation and obligation to reciprocate favors. The meaning of gift or favour exchanges may not be material but rather symbolic in nature. The gifts do not merely represent voluntary and disinterested acts of generosity; the obligatory nature is a characteristic of gift giving that gives rise to lasting patterns of reciprocal relations. As people do not wish to fall into debt (which puts them in an inferior position vis-à-vis others in the network), the burden of reciprocity actually motivates them to ensure that favours are returned (at least on par) so as to avoid criticism and scorn from other network members and for them to maintain a sense of self-pride. Such social exchanges involve a ‘balance of debt’, which keeps the cycle of exchanges ongoing. In the long run, a sense of fairness and accountability that the ‘contributions/investments in the relationship’ equal the number of benefits accrued is required in order for the relationship to endure. These forms of repayment are superficial as they merely serve to enable the giver to maintain a certain social status and avoid the judgement of others.

Conversely, the gift giving to the poor may be viewed favourably in today’s gospel, but one must never neglect the dignity of the receiving party and accord due respect to their free will. Oftentimes, I’ve witnessed the obligatory stance of the giver in wanting the receiving party to accept their generous gestures, with little consideration of their feelings or predicament. As if poverty isn’t difficult enough for them to reciprocate in kind, the burden and source of relational stress can lead to them withdrawing from social ties completely. That is why it is easier for the poor to readily accept government handouts than turn to their social networks in times of need. It goes beyond the pressure of repayment; the poor do not wish to be perceived negatively within their own social networks too. They already have enough pressures, given the limited resources at their disposal; the last thing they wish for is further withdrawal from the limited participation in their social network because of the burden of emotional debt.

As we’re reflecting on today’s gospel, let us look beyond the simplistic context of charitable acts and perhaps contemplate our way of life, and the needless reciprocity and gift giving that seemed to have pervaded many aspects in modern day. We ought to be asking ourselves if there could be a better allocation of our resources than disinterested acts of generosity. From parents feeling compelled to organize birthday parties for their kids for the entire class, to the ‘necessity’ of preparing tons of gifts on Teachers’ Day, we need to truly question our underlying intents from the beneficiaries’ point of view. The superficiality of reciprocity for the purpose of network building is also the key reason why I have abstained from involvement in all alumni events since graduation. Except for the few that I’ve kept in touch with constantly, I failed to see a need to rekindle ties with the rest after 20 lost years of going our separate ways. It would be at best, for nostalgia and reminiscence; at worst, for mutually benefitting network building. That being said, I’m guilty in many aspects of such false generosity as well; the annual coordination of ‘Secret Santa’ gift exchanges during Christmas is merely an event that none of my friends are perhaps really looking forward to, but felt obligated to stick with. Hence, for my ministry members reading this reflection, perhaps we can put our money to better use this year instead of indulging ourselves.

(Today’s OXYGEN by Dylan Tan)

Prayer:  Lord Jesus, we come to you in prayer with a heart of thanksgiving. Your goodness and mercy will sustain us and we praise you for your loving kindness. Please guide our lives and fill us with your Holy Spirit as we face each new day. We trust in your divine love and counsel and we know that you are a God who never fails. Help us to embrace each day with love and generosity. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Thanksgiving: Thank you Heavenly Father, for being with us every single moment of our lives and guiding us on the path of righteousness.

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