Does Charity Really Begin at Home?

By its very nature charity means reaching out beyond our comfort zone, and beyond our own family.

Wilfred Thompson, “Saint Martin and the Beggar” (c. 1918)
Wilfred Thompson, “Saint Martin and the Beggar” (c. 1918) (photo: Public Domain)

“Charity begins at home.” Really?

Does anyone know the origin of this fatuous phrase? I hear it quoted among Catholics as if it were Sacred Scripture, and when it is quoted it is most often as a response to my suggestion that a person ought to donate more to the Church or to the poor. 

“After all, Father,” they say with that smug expression like they’ve just thought of something terribly clever, “Charity does begin at home.”

I think, if the phrase means anything at all, it means that “love” begins at home — and if you can’t be charitable or loving to the people you live with, it’s not worth pretending to love others.

However, the people who don’t want to give to the poor or to the Church misinterpret the word “charity”. They think it means “charitable giving” or “charities that work with the poor”. 

When they say “charity begins at home” they imagine that they must look after themselves and their family, and if there is anything left over they might help others just a little.

In fact loving our neighbor is the second part of loving God, and the gospel teaches us that you can’t do one without the other. If this is true then the phrase “charity begins at home” is simply false. The one place charity does not begin is at home. By its very nature charity means reaching out beyond our own comfort zone.

One of the basics of a good Catholic home therefore is the understanding and example of outgoing generosity. Children who see their parents given generously and living generously will grow up to be un-materialistic, self-giving and naturally charitable.

So next time you hear someone trot out the phrase, “Charity begins at home,” take a moment to gently ask what they mean by it. 

It could be that they’re using it as a get out to justify their lack of concern for the poor.

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