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Against Punishing the Poor

08/03/2014 Comments (56)
Under a proposed stricter Norton Shores solicitation ordinance, people asking for money would receive a civil infraction citation, and motorists who hold up traffic because of their engagement with panhandlers could also be penalized.
It is *so* important make sure the poor are well and truly punished and humiliated for being poor. So, so important. Also any filthy do-gooder who tries to help them.  Particularly remarkable is the terror (supported by urban legends of rich panhandlers pulling down $500 a day that nobody repeating such legends seems eager to try) that if one is generous to the poor, one might be (gasp!) cheated on occasion, which is apparently a fate so horrible that it is worth abandoning all attempts to show charity to the homeless.
 
I know. I know.  Paul says to the Thessalonians, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."  It's an instruction given to Christians regarding those within the household of faith who were blowing off responsibility since they figure Christ's return was imminent, not a Get out of Charity free card for Christians.  When it comes to the poor we meet in the world, here are the real marching orders:
"If any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you...for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. - (Mt 5:40–42; 45–48).  
Note the shocking lack of qualifiers Jesus puts on that.  Nothing about being deserving at all. Nothing about the hope and promise that the poor will take the charity, "make something of themselves" and then pay back.  Indeed, he pronounces a special blessing on generosity and love to people who will not and cannot reciprocate.
 
No.  Really.
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Lk 14:12–14)
I'm as uncomfortable about that as you are.  I really *really* want a return on my investment, not in money especially (though that is nice) but with gratitude, with being seen to be a Great Guy, with not being cheated, exploited, etc.  Jesus basically blows all that off and tells us to be generous without regard for any return at all.
 
Of course, we are not to be fools.  We should not be generous in ways that do more harm than good by, say, buying somebody's heroin for them.  But we are, as a rule far more likely to be stingy and tell ourselves we are nobly denying the poor man his vices than be generous and foolishly enable vice. Likewise, the point of Jesus command to be generous to create a class on permanent lookout for a handout.  The Church is clear that the goal is for the poor to have work at a living wage.  Rather, Jesus' point is that we cannot, as we work for those good things, let our generosity hinge on the demand for payback.  Just as God shows mercy to the undeserving (namely, you and me) because he is Love and entirely for our good, so we must likewise act in mercy and love to the undeserving entirely for their good.  
 
There are lots of ways to give besides money.  My wife and I prefer to give food, and it is usually gratefully received with "God bless yous".  Most of the poor I bump into hate having to beg just as much as anybody would, but they are desperate.  They don't need critics, they need help.  It's what the body of Christ exists, in part, to give.

Filed under blessed are the poor

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.