A friend of mine who had suffered a great personal loss asked for help for her family in managing the aftermath of the tragedy. People were generous. Some felt the charity too much, and began questioning whether the family merited further kindness. I’ve seen similar type of thinking in the unkind stares of people in the grocery checkout at a woman with her children, paying using a WIC, and purchasing a cake.
There’s a strain of thinking that if you are poor, you should restrict all your purchases to the necessities as a matter of prudence. It implies that any feeding of the appetites of the senses beyond what is only necessary is in some measure frivolous. Christian charity demands we recognize life is more than the barest of needs. Demanding that all who seek aid from others, whether through charity or the government, restrict all their purchases to what can be considered necessary only by survival standards is saying, “Our love for you stops at this point. You may exist. Thriving is extra.” Who wants a life without birthday celebrations or holidays, wine at the feast or salt on the meat?
The gnashing against the poor having something shiny or lavish or unhealthy reminds me of the comments of the Pharisees about the waste of ointment by woman washing Jesus’ feet. If we want to know how we are to give, look at Jesus. He made five loaves and two fishes feed five thousand. He made six cisterns of wine for a wedding feast. God’s love is lavish. Ours should be too. Caring for the poor is something we’re all called to do, whether through direct ministry or almsgiving. It is a necessary manifestation of our faith. We get told over and over again, “Faith without works is dead,” “what we do to the least of these, we do to” Jesus, and if “we give a cup of cold water to a prophet,” we will receive a prophet’s reward. We must not simply know about the poor, but know the poor, not merely care about poverty, but seek to alleviate suffering by being a source of hope and generosity, of friendship.
We would not want our friends to want, to have only the least of what they need. We would not want our friends to have no hope, no pleasure, no beauty, no birthday cakes. Part of caring for the poor, loving the poor, is recognizing, they too, should be able to feast, and not begrudge it. Jesus warns us against measuring generosity based on merit via the parable of the workers in the vineyard, when he reminds the laborers who complain, “Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?”
We’ve already been given the greatest mercy/kindness possible by Christ. Any generosity we offer, is a pale and by comparison, miserly imitation of Christ’s love. Kindness is not something we merit, it is something we owe. If we need a reminder closer to our own time, Servant of God, Dorothy Day once received a diamond ring as a donation and promptly gave it to an old woman. When questioned why she would give away something which could have bought a month’s worth of food, she answered, “Did you think God only made diamonds for the rich?” We need to understand to a person, no kindness is wasted, and thus be generous, and that kindness and charity is not something we earn, it’s something we must give, knowing it is always being due.
Anger at the poor receiving gifts, and grudging irritation at beauty being shared with the poor, is the same. It is the whisper of an enemy always seeking to devour each of us. The enemy is completely indifferent about how we wind up eaten or why. His only goal is for us to not be charitable in either our hearts for the poor, or in deed. The murmurs of this argument can be heard in the grumblings of those who think the Vatican should sell all of its art, which would mean the art would be parsed out to those who could afford it, and all who could not, would not have access to centuries of beauty.
Whether the whispers incline us not to give because someone is not in our eyes worthy, or incline us to sneer at someone else’s lack of generosity because there are so many in need, listening to these whispers hurt our souls. Real charity is always an invitation deeper and deeper into Christ. We have to give of ourselves, and to remember who we are really giving to — Christ, and who we’re really helping by our generosity (ourselves to become more like Christ). So to those who have much, we deserve to give much. To those who have little, feel no shame in receiving, or in taking joy in the gifts you receive. Service to the poor is not charity. We owe them this as a matter of justice. All we have, is a gift. “Freely we have received, freely we are to give.”
Now, I have to go and clear out my closet of what is owed.