Thursday, September 25, 2014

Caring for "The Least of These"

I confess:  I don't do enough for the less fortunate.  To be more specific, I don't think I do anything, really.  It's true, a certain level of our income goes to charity every month, but it's hard for me to feel like this counts.  My wife takes care of the payments, and some of them--such as our donation to our parish--are on auto-pay.  So it requires no more real commitment from me than having my tax dollars go to welfare.  It happens without my needing to do anything.

So I'm stuck in a position where what little I actually do for the unfortunate comes so automatically that I have no more merit for it than I have for providing trees with carbon dioxide when I breathe.  Hardly the stuff to warrant a "Well done, thou good and faithful servant!"

Now I've heard it said that "charity begins at home."  I've also had people try to comfort me with the fact that I do take care of my family, and so I'm told that's my way of caring for "the least of these."  But there are reasons that these consolations ring hollow.  It's true that taking care of my family is incredibly noble and good, but it should never be an excuse to be lazy about caring for the poor, the infirm, the imprisoned.  First of all, Jesus was pretty big on saying Christians had to go above and beyond what pagans would do.  And even most of the "pursue your own happiness" philosophies often admit, if maybe grudgingly, that a person should take care of his own family.

So basic even a hedonist can understand it...sometimes.

Also, when Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats, where the "goats" who didn't care for the unfortunate were told to depart from Him, do we really think we can get away with saying "Well those people didn't even provide for their families!"  That's a pretty big assumption that doesn't fit with the spirit of the parable at all.  It's obvious that w'ere obligated to care for people other than our families too.  If we care only for our families, Jesus might rightly ask, "Do not even the pagans do the same?"

But if I am without excuse, then why don't I get out there and do more?  Why am I not out there working soup kitchens, giving money to homeless people I see on the street, giving company to the homeless, or hope to the imprisoned?  This question is too complicated to answer simply.  One answer is that I don't know where to begin.  For a man without a job, I do have a lot of demands on my physical presence.  My wife needs me to be bodily present at home more than is the case in many marriages, due to chronic health problems.  So one of the major reasons I don't have a job is, in part, also a reason I can't be out there in homeless shelters multiple times a week.

But there is also fear.  What if the less fortunate take advantage of me?  What if, when I give a little, they keep asking more?  What if I can't say "no," and then start neglecting my family?  This is probably rooted in my life experiences.  I have had people in my life who didn't know when to quit, and I did have a hard time saying "no."  I've had times when close loved ones, even my own wife, have gotten understandably nervous that, when someone asks me for help, I would give in even if it meant neglecting my family or taking more money out of the family funds than I ought.  It's all too easy to project all of that onto the unfortunate.  "If I give an inch, I'll end up giving a mile.  I won't know when or how to stop."  So, in fear of getting in over my head, I instead do nothing at all.

To be honest, I think a huge problem here is that I lack faith.  Specifically, I lack faith that something is better than nothing in God's judgement.  So if I can't be a regular Mother Teresa, I tell myself that smaller "easier" things will count for nothing at all.  As if I will reach Heaven and God will say "Depart from me, because even though you gave a little, it hardly inconvenienced or burdened you, so you may as well have not even bothered!"  Growing up, I often heard it said of Christian giving, "You have to give until it hurts."  And while I think that's the saintly thing to do, and I think that there will be great reward for those who do so, I can't help but think that there's a danger to this sort of thinking if it's taken too rigidly:  If I absolutely must give until it hurts in order for it to even "count," then it's tempting to not even waste my time giving anything at all unless it hurts.  It becomes "all or nothing."  This is obviously self-defeating.

Well, it's not a Thanksgiving Day feast, exactly, so
I'm sure they'd be just as well off doing without.

In the parable of the ten servants who were given one coin each, the only one the Master rejects is the servant who did nothing; we don't hear of Him rejecting even a servant who only earned one measly coin.  In fact, Jesus said "He who gives so much as a cup of cold water to the least of these little ones will by no means lose his reward."  And a small gift like that is something the giver won't even miss.  That's not an excuse to fail at continually trying to pluck up the courage and motivation to "give until it hurts."  The more you give, the greater the blessing.  But even if I never master that, God will not discount what seemingly pitiful good I do just because I could have done better.  Even mere dollars or tens of dollars a week, even an hour or so a week, it's all better than nothing.  It's a "cup of cold water."  There are plenty of "cups" in the cupboard and "water" in the fridge.  Neither I nor my family will even know it's gone.  What am I waiting for?

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