The idea of “Paying it Forward” has achieved a measure of popularity in our culture as a form of altruism that aids a whole sequence of needy recipients without the stigma of handouts. The idea is that the recipient of a gift is directed to ‘repay’ it by giving a similarly generous gift to another needy person. The idea is not a new one: in 317 BC it was the central plot of a prizewinning play in ancient Athens, and Benjamin Franklin is credited with reviving (and practicing) the concept in 1784 which he described as “a trick of mine for doing a great deal of good with a little money.” More recently, Woody Hayes, the famous (or ‘infamous’ to some) college football coach, expressed the principle as: “You can never pay back; but you can always pay forward.”
In recent times, many influential groups and individuals have adopted the concept as a powerful way of maximizing the effects of their philanthropy, but it is also practiced by ordinary people who will randomly chose to pay the restaurant bill, the turnpike toll-charge, or for the grocery cart contents of a total stranger, leaving the instruction to “pass it on” to someone else. When stories of things like that make our nightly news, they provide a heart-warming counter-point to all the incidents of uncivil behavior, and inspire us to consider how we too might enrich and uplift others through our own “random acts of kindness.”
As citizens of our world, we are delighted and inspired to see the concept catch on in our culture, but “paying it forward” has never been a novel concept for those who know the Bible. From beginning to end, the pages of scripture emphasize that “we are our brother’s keeper” and that God expects us to share His blessings with our fellow man. When Jesus summarized God’s commandments, He blended “Love your neighbor as yourself” with “Love the Lord your God” as being the essence of all God’s laws – and an obvious application is that we should take our neighbor’s needs as seriously as our own. And lest we fail to get the idea, Jesus also gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) to drive home the point that anyone in need is the ‘neighbor’ to whom we are to pass along God’s blessings.
There is a difference, however, in that the popular idea of “pay it forward” carries the reasonable hope that the recipient will in turn be generous – which is in effect a ‘repayment’ for our own generosity. God’s way is more radical – when Jesus said that God dispenses His material blessings on both the “just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45) it carries the clear implication that God’s generosity extends even to those who can be expected to hoard it for their own selfish purposes. That this same standard of non-judgmental generosity is to apply to us as well is amplified when Jesus says, among other things, that we are to give without expecting repayment (Luke 6:35) and our generosity should extend even to those who abuse us (Matthew 5:39-42). Those are truly mind-boggling standards of loving generosity, and many generations of Christians have felt challenged to live up to them.
But God’s practice of material generosity is but a faint shadow of His most radical act of “paying it forward.” St. Paul reminds us that: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) That is the epitome of unwarranted generosity in action: that the Son of God would willingly offer Himself as a sacrifice for the very people who defy and reject Him – even the ones who are nailing Him to the cross! And the sheer magnitude of the gift is also out of all proportion to any other – everlasting life in the presence of God, when our own sinfulness warrants only banishment. As St. Paul again reminds us: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
How are we to repay our Lord for His amazing gift of grace? We can indeed never pay back, but we can pay forward. When we commit ourselves to forgiving others as we have been forgiven, we are honoring the debt owed to our Lord by paying forward His own grace. And when we witness to our neighbor the Good News of the salvation earned for him/her on the cross, we are paying forward the greatest gift of all.