Lisa Nichols Hickman: Christ the tipper

We know an individual act of generosity when we see it. But what's required to foster a culture of generosity?

“Describe a time when you had a negative or positive experience with Christianity -- what happened and what did you learn from that experience?” That’s a question on the survey I give to my students at Westminster College for the course, “Understanding Christianity,” I teach each fall. The survey asks for responses about the students’ misunderstandings of, hopes for and past experiences with Christianity.

One student’s response jumped at me:

“As a waitress, I depended on tips for my salary, but I distinctly remember a few tables that tipped very little, and instead left an evangelism card that said, “The best tip we can give is the gift of Jesus.” It struck me as perverse. And, if I wasn’t a Christian already, I might have been convinced that Christianity was a religion promoting stinginess, hard-heartedness and a lack of empathy.”

I couldn’t help but wonder (despite its ascent to a platitude), what would Jesus do?

Jesus ate at many different tables: tables filled with disciples, prostitutes, sinners, tax collectors, publicans and Pharisees. The man could eat, apparently. Aside from the historical anachronism, I’m still guessing Jesus never left behind a 15-20 percent tip, so we can only surmise a response.

The Gospel of Mark offers two considerations. First, throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus requests those who begin to understand his identity to “say nothing to no one”-- referred to by biblical scholars as the “Messianic Secret.” Opinions abound about the role of the Messianic Secret, but I wonder if one effect of this command was to prompt people to live transformed lives instead of “talking” about transformation. Talk is easy. Living is tough.

When I think of my student’s interaction with Christians at the restaurant, I’m certain a generous tip would’ve spoken louder than trite words on a card.

The second insight from Mark’s Gospel comes at the table of Simon the leper, where Jesus ate with his disciples. The disciples are stunned when an unnamed woman anoints Jesus by breaking an alabaster jar of extravagant nard over his head. While the disciples are by no means penny pinchers in this story, they are rightly concerned about resources for the poor. Jesus pushes past their remarks and offers praise for her deed by noting that whenever the gospel is told, her story will be shared as well. While the disciples are caught in a web of talk, she lives into the transformed life the Messianic Secret pushes us to embody. She acts. She gives. She offers all that she has. Without a word, her devotion is embodied and enacted.

I am married to an excessive tipper. This sometimes causes arguments in our household, when I, like the disciples, concern myself with practical details: the bills, the babysitter and the bottom line. But Jason, my husband, who has waited tables, always leaves behind an extravagant gesture. His tip is not a card with claims for Jesus; instead it is recognition of the waiter’s life circumstance. His act sees a whole person who needs prayer and encouragement, not a half-hearted effort for evangelism that misses a deeper conversation.

It’s easier to see how we can embody practices of generosity (like tipping) on a personal level than at an institutional one. It’s one thing to be generous an individual act at a time -- but what’s required to foster a culture of generosity?

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.