The Third Jar by Jason Barnhart
When Father Bruce delivered the children’s homily last week, he gave each of the children three pennies and asked them to allocate them into jars with three labels: Save, Spend, and Give.
The Spend jar was a completely different jar from the Give jar. That’s important to notice now. Thirty years ago that would have been obvious, but it’s not so obvious any more. For example, my neighbor kids a few years ago came knocking on the door, asking me to buy a book of coupons for places like Wendy’s and McDonald’s so that their school might then have money to buy art supplies. I asked, “Could I just buy you some art supplies? Why does Wendy’s need a cut?”
Harvard professor Michael Sandel has written about this. He has noted how market values, over time, tend to crowd out non-market values. This is what happens when we collapse the Spend jar and the Give jar: Our “giving” becomes transactional, and the action of giving our resources in support of a larger goal that is in line with our values shifts into something else. It becomes, rather, I give this to get that.
I buy this Amazon Echo Red and I get this smart device—and I can brag that now I’ve helped fight AIDS in Africa. Maybe I keep it low key, slip it in casually, “you know, I felt better about buying it because that’s such a great program.” I buy these fair trade Himalayan salt lamps, and I get these really cool salt lamps and bragging rights about supporting the communities in which they were produced.
Let me stress, there’s nothing inherently wrong with supporting artisans or buying something that helps benefit someone else. It can be a powerful and collaborative way to work together.
But it’s important to make sure that it’s not the only way we do philanthropy. Philanthropy is relational, while buying a thing is, in part, transactional. It may tip us toward the feeling that we’ve completed a transaction, rather than toward the sense that we have begun or renewed relationship.
And, worse than that, transactional giving leaves me in charge of deciding what to try to obtain. It leaves me basing that choice on what I think I need. And you know what I’ve found out about that?
I’m lousy at knowing what I need. My first year of college (and I had gotten into a good school; I was allegedly bright) I thought I needed coffee, sugar, and no sleep. That turned out just how you think it did. I’m lousy at knowing what I need.
I’m comforted that Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount that God knows what we need before we know. I’ve seen that throughout my life. I have seen it in this church.
And that’s part of why Carmel and I pledge. That’s why we put something in the third jar—to practice doing something with money that is completely different from being a customer, and to do it as part of and in support of this community, in the belief that sometimes when someone else needs those things that they couldn’t have possibly known they would need, and that can’t be bought, they’ll have them, too.