What is your motivation when it comes to the custom of giving hongbaos during the Chinese New Year? How do you decide on what is an appropriate amount and do you show preferential treatment in accordance to the amount you or your child has received? This may explain why some will fret over how much to give because they do not want to “lose face” in front of others. Thus, one might adopt a strategy of “wait and see” where he will discreetly pull his child away and peek into the hongbao that has just been received before returning the equivalent amount to the giver. In this way, one can reciprocate by same the same amount and ensure he is not losing out financially for giving more.
To be sure, the giving of hongbaos is one Chinese tradition for which there is no Christian objection. As long as we are not doing so under compulsion or having some superstitious beliefs that this practice will usher in prosperity for ourselves, it is good to honour our elders and bless our juniors and those whom we come into regular contact with. Christians should learn to treat this Chinese custom as an opportunity to put into practice what the Bible teaches “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) while bearing in mind that our giving need not become a strain upon our family.
When Christians truly understand the gospel of grace and experience the generosity of God’s love shown towards us through Jesus’ death on the cross, we will not remain tight-fisted or calculative. Instead, we will be like Zacchaeus, who eagerly promised to give beyond what was required by the Mosaic Law (Lk 19:8-10) because Jesus had come into his life and transformed him. One would imagine that money would be less of an issue in Zacchaeus’ life because money went back to being a tool for serving people rather than an idol to be worshipped.
Likewise, Christians must guard against the tendency to become our own saviour by believing that we must save enough money in order to maintain security and be in control in an uncertain economy. The Bible teaches us that the way we handle our finances should reflect our trust in God rather than in money (1 Tim 6:17). In addition, while Christians are called to be prudent, we must also be watchful that we do not slide into anxiety or greed because we have forgotten Jesus’ teaching that “a man’s life does not consist of his possessions” (Lk 12:15).
On the other hand, there may be some who give not so much out of the generosity of their hearts but simply because they are relying on people’s approval for their significance. The sumptuous spread on the table or stack of crisp notes in the hongbaos is more to impress and extend their social influence rather than to bless and serve those around them. Here, we are reminded that Jesus used the analogy of a banquet to instruct his disciples that they are not to share their homes and build relationships with people of their own social class (or higher) who would profit them, but with those who were poor or without influence, those who could never return them the favour (Lk 14:12-14). But what was Jesus trying to address in his teaching?
Timothy Keller, an insightful and experienced pastor points out, this is a radical teaching because it would have gone against the practice of the patronage system during Jesus’ days where holding banquets for peers and existing relations were the norm and the means of creating business opportunities. For Jesus, the patronage system only served to sustain the status quo in a society divided by class and race and his ethic of love attacked this world system at its root.
In today’s context, Christians need to be intentional in spending more of our money and wealth on the poor and needy rather than on our own entertainment and socializing with important peers. During this Chinese New Year period, let us ask God to give us generous hearts as we learn to make people a priority over our own prosperity. Take time to pray with your family members and think about who you can reach out to or bring cheer to in their times of need. For example, some NTUC vouchers would help cover the household expenses of your office cleaner. After all, nobody said that hongbaos must always come in amounts ending with 6 or 8.
January 22, 2012