It's easy to find reasons not to help the poor. We can say that we can't afford to help, or that they're not really poor, or that it's their own fault that they're poor, or that they will never stop being poor if we help them.
In the United States, these issues can be muddy. Most of us probably know someone who really isn't poor but pretends to be, or who really is to blame for being poor, or who really doesn't want to stop being poor. Mark Shea shows why these anecdotes still don't excuse us from serving the poor:
[Jesus] pronounces a special blessing on generosity and love to people who will not and cannot reciprocate.
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)
Is this hard? Heck, yes. When we find reasons for not helping out people who seem undeserving, it makes a lot of emotional sense. You get burned badly once or twice, it's hard not to be cautious, if not downright paranoid about getting burned again.
So let's set asides these tricky emotional issues of serving the poor in the first world, and let's focus on something more insidious. More and more, I'm hearing that the good thing, the just thing, the sensible, the noble, the spiritual thing -- is to refuse to serve the poor in the third world, because the real problem is that people's spiritual needs are going unmet. I've heard a prominent Catholic writer scoff when a dying man (some proponent for a liberal cause) thanked the soup kitchen who fed him when he was hungry. Why didn't he thank the priests who fed his soul? she demanded to know. Didn't he realize how much more important that was, especially for a notorious sinner like himself?
I wrote about this phenomenon in my post Ann Coulter to Jesus: Fix Bethlehem First -- not because I think Ann Coulter is listening, and not because I think that even Ann Coulter cares what Ann Coulter says, as long as Ann Coulter gets a check. I wrote it because I'm hearing one of her arguments from more and more first world Christians: The body? Pff. That's nothing. We're all gonna die anyway. The great thing is to minister to the soul, which will live forever.
It's true enough, as far as it goes. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God." "Fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell." "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."
But let's make a distinction here. Christ and the saints exhort us to deny ourselves, to voluntarily turn away from the lure of physical comforts, to sell all we have to follow Him. He wants us to learn that we have a choice: to give ourselves over to the demands of the flesh, or to master the flesh and try, instead, to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst.
Christ and the saints did not exhort us to deny others, to prevent other people from enjoying physical comforts. He did not tell us to make the choice for other people. Instead, He told us, over and over and over again, to feed His sheep. And that's what the saints did: they fed people. Yes, with plain old physical food, that poor people could eat with their bodily mouths and digest with their earthbound bellies.
Yes, when Jesus said "Feed my sheep," He meant that we should minister to each other's souls. But he also meant feed feed, as in feeding food. That's what makes the images of spiritual "feeding" so powerful: because we all know how important literal food is. It's important. We all understand this. That's why He made the main source of spiritual sustenance, the Eucharist, into something we take into our bodies, swallow, and digest: because we need food. And when we need it, we are reminded that we must not deny it to others -- not out of selfishness, not out of stinginess, and most certainly, God forbid, not out of some ghastly misguided idea that we're doing a work of mercy by teaching hungry people to forget their empty bellies and think about their souls.
Ever try to write a clear pargraph, do some math, or perform some intricate task when you've skipped a meal or two? Not easy, is it? Your head swims, you can't concentrate, and you feel weak and confused. And that's just writing or math -- easy stuff. Now imagine fixing your mind on the mercies of God when you've skipped the last ten meals. And now imagine some well-fed Westerner explaining that it's for your own Good, and this is the best way to learn that God loves you.
Always remember: when Jesus rose from the dead, one of the first things He did was cook His buddies some lunch. He even built the fire with His own hands. Yes, the miraculous catch of fish was a symbol of the abdundant spiritual favors that God bestows on us; but it was also fish, real fish, which they could and did gobble up, and I bet they were delicious.
This is how God talks to us: by taking care of our bodies, which He created. Remember, "they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread." Oh, Him! We know Him! He's the one who feeds us.
Maybe, just maybe, we should do the same for other people.