Gifted to the Least—John Barclay on generosity in the early church

Updated: Feb 25

The grace of God is a free gift. Literally: the New Testament word charis that we translate grace simply means gift, benefit, or favour. But what does this entail?

It’s common to think that since God gives freely, he puts us under no obligation, expecting nothing in return. This notion of a one-way gift, however, is alien to the New Testament and early Christianity.

In this talk, John Barclay explains how gifts in antiquity were given in order to create social ties and relationships of reciprocity. This is what God has done with the gift of Christ. Grace is a gift that draws us into relationship.

But God has also subverted human expectations. Gifts in antiquity were only given to people deemed worthy of them — those of the “right” ethnicity, gender, or social standing. The shocking news announced by the apostle Paul is that God has given his greatest gift without regard to the worth of its recipient. The gift of Christ is an incongruous gift, extended in flagrant disregard of all human systems of worth.

What does God expect in return? “A key part of that response is the cascading of the gift on to others," says Barclay. "Our return to God is expressed in the way we pay the gift forward.” The gift of grace is a divine and human call and response, creating new communities across our most cherished boundaries.

Listen to “Gifted to the Least: The Church in Antiquity” to hear how this cascade of gift played itself out in the early church and the implications for today. For more from John Barclay, check out his landmark study Paul and the Gift, compellingly summarised by Dave Friedrich in these twolovely lectures.

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