Were The Three Wisemen Guilty of Bribery?: Giving Gifts to God as Worship

In the business ethics classes I teach, we do a section on international business ethics.  Of course the question of “when in rome, should I do as a roman?” comes up (relativism).  One issue in particular is Bribery.  Now bribery is more tricky than it first seems.  Bribery is when you give something something to influence their behavior.  In some countries it is not umcommon for foreign officials to expect some payment under the table (illegally) to make a decision in your favor.  We consider it corrupt when that person is supposed to be acting in the publics best interest but does something biased for you because you give them a bribe. 

But there are other gifts given to influence behavior which we don’t consider criminal– happy meal toys to get kids to buy a particular meal; tips to win better service; rebates or free appetizers cards or 2 for 1 deals at restaraunts, etc to influence customerbehavior, etc.   One might even call reception dinners after weddings a non-corrupt bribe, to repay guests for the kindness of their coming and their gift.   But we don’t think of these as bribes per se.

There is also extortion, which isn’t bribery.  My students sometimes tell me of spring break trips to mexico where a police officer threatens to put them in jail unless they pay the officer money on the spot.  In many cases, this isn’t a bribe, because the officer is threatening to do something which is probably not legal.  His behavior is more like someone in the mafia telling you to give them $1,000 or ‘your legs might get broke’. 

Not all gifts are bribes either.  This is something we don’t quite understand from the West.  In Africa or middle east countries, it is quite common to give gifts to people out of respect or honor.  This isn’t a bribe, because you aren’t necessarily trying to get any favor or decision in your favor.  You are just honoring them, and showing respect for their position.  You are saying, “I know who you are, and I respect you”.  

I once gave the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a gift, and it wasn’t a bribe.  Whenever I go to Iran (I’ve been there 5 times) I bring books and US artifacts to give to special people I meet.  Since I mostly meet academics, I bring a lot of books.  In 2004 I was at a dinner for foreign guests at the reception palace of the mayor of Tehran– Ahmadinejad at the time– and my translator asked if I wanted to go meet the mayor.  I said sure, and looked in my bag for a gift to find all I had was a nice copy of “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill.  That was the book I gave him, with a little note inside.  I only wish I had a picture of that moment now, handing him that book. 

At some of the other events I spoke at I would receive gifts– a clock, meals, Iranian artifacts, or plaques.  We give plaques in the US, but no one thinks that these are bribes– they are simply a sign of honor for the recipient. 

It was not uncommon for kings or queens in the Bible to have gifts given to them.  Solomon had many gifts given to him: the queen of sheba showered him with gifts, the Pharoh of Egypt gave his daughter as a wedding gift to Solomon, etc.  These were given in honor, not necessarily as bribes. 

When the wisemen came to see Jesus, they also brought gifts– gold, frankencense, and Myrrh.  These weren’t payoffs or bribes– they were signs of honor.  The wisemen honred Jesus by travelling to see him and to offer him expensive gifts, as signs of their respect and worship. 

Christians can give gifts to honor God.  Of course these things can turn into bribes if the mindset is to give something to God to get something back.  Sometimes people think they will merit Gods favor by giving their time, their money, etc.  But this is a corruption of gift giving.  But sometimes we tend to think of these outward signs of honoring God as attempts to merit God’s favor.  And thats not right either.  Some churches (particularly Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc) are amazing works of art and architecture, built to honor God.  Now some donors may have given money to these projects to gain merit– to bribe God.  But the same may happen with people donating to mission projects or other charity.  Only God knows the heart.  But the point is that these outward offerings of generosity can be very honoring to God. 

We may respond, as Judas did, that the money spent on things such as the perfume poured on Jesus feet by the prostitute, or the money spent on buiding beautiful monuments to God could have been spent more efficiently and effectively.  And no doubt, sometimes money is spent unwisely for ‘God’s sake’.  But gift giving as honor is a concept which does not mesh well with economizing scrimping and saving.  Good stewardship does not necessitate miserliness, despite the protests of some scrooges. 🙂  Sometimes we immediately interpret others gifts to God as bribes– we think that they are just trying to earn God’s favor or merit God’s mercy.  But that just isn’t the case.  We should allow others to give gifts to God without rushing to judgment that they are jus trying to earn their way to heaven, etc 🙂

Its important also to remember that gift receiving can be difficult for some of us as well, and that should maybe make us consider the state of our heart:

“Gift-receiving is also a thermometer of the soul. It is “more blessed to give than to receive,” as Jesus says (Acts 20:35), but receiving is usually harder. Sometimes the reluctance or refusal to receive a gift indicates the absolute need for independence and the fear of being under obligation to perform some duty in return.”(urbana)

This is the time of year for us to take time to pray and reflect on the graciousness of God’s gifts to us.  Thanksgiving is a great preparation to get us to start thinking of God’s grace and mercy.  We are blessed, and to accept the blessings of God and gifts from others does take humility and a stance of non-independence.  We should beware of our Judas tendencies to criticize generosity, while also striving to be good stewards of what God has given.  Christians are called to live in an economy of Grace– not mere justice.  Justice calls on us to demand right payment, but when we have been given grace beyond measure and beyond what we deserve, we no longer have a basis upon which to demand our rights.  In this economy of Grace we receive the generosity of God, accepting it knowing we do not merit it, and we give graciously to others without reserve, knowing that the little we give pales in comparison to the much we’ve been given.

May God have mercy on us all, and may we give good gifts to God and to others.



2 responses to “Were The Three Wisemen Guilty of Bribery?: Giving Gifts to God as Worship

  1. Many are times we refuse God’s grace because we want to feel indipendent. Amazing insight

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