|October 27, 2010
CHARITY AND FAITH
Recently my wife (Peggy) and I were having dinner in an outdoor restaurant in a side street in Athens, Greece. It was a small restaurant with about four tables in a busy middle class pedestrian street—pedestrian and bike traffic flowed all around the table. During dinner, we were approached by beggars every 15 minutes or so—children, adults, and strolling minstrels of all ages and skills passed by with imploring looks and hands out. Even the door of the nearby supermarket featured beggars looking for a few cents in their cups. The unusual number of beggars (for my city, at least) prompted the question: at what point does one stop giving in the face of so many demands? Peggy countered with “At what point does one begin giving?”
Where to start and when to stop charitable acts remain haunting questions! If you are like us, there is only so much flexible cash to meet the incessant requests for aid. I suppose the answer is: one always has a little to share with the needy apart from the usual “charities,” such as church community and extended family. For various reasons, these two for many of us have become primary obligations and really don’t qualify as charities in the usual sense.
Some may be embarrassed into making charitable contributions, and others may perform charitable acts to enhance their standing in the community. But if it benefits you in any way (saving face, enhanced reputation, etc.) is it really charity? Of course, the poor don’t care about your motivation—they welcome the help! Two disinterested motives for giving to the needy beyond our primary obligations, however, are for humanitarian and religious reasons. In the first instance, the sight of human suffering and need spontaneously motivates charitable acts; in the other, a person is motivated by the constraints of religious faith. In both cases no thought is given to any personal benefit.
The bottom line is this: only so much time or money can be given before resources are exhausted and family necessities are affected. When to stop, therefore, seems the easier of the two questions to answer: you stop before you dip into your children’s inheritance, and/or your giving brings you into the ranks of those with outstretched hands—but, candidly, we usually stop before that happens. Peggy’s question seems the more difficult of the two: when to start? How does one decide which need to meet? Do you give to everyone who asks for a handout? Do you contribute to every charity that sends you a letter?
For those in the Christian tradition guidance is mixed. True enough, Jesus commended the widow who put her two copper coins (a mere pittance, Mark 12:42) into the temple treasury. Jesus described her gift as her whole livelihood—and he valued the mere “pittance” as amounting to more than everyone else had contributed! In this example the amount you give is not important, but what you give in relationship to what you have is important. Another example: Jesus challenged a wealthy young man to sell what he had, give to the poor, and follow him in penniless wandering (Mark 10:21). In this example the amount you give is important—you give till it bankrupts you.
But what is one to do with Jesus’ own example when confronted with an expensive gift presented to him shortly before his crucifixion? To anoint his head, a woman brought perfume worth, in the money of the time, almost a year’s wages for a common laborer (Mark 14:5)—that gift would certainly have fed and clothed a lot of needy people! Some complained about the waste and the missed opportunity for helping the poor (Mark 14:4-5), and Jesus replied: “The poor you always have with you” (Mark 14:7). Who was right: Jesus or the complainers? On one level, Jesus was clearly correct—the poor are indeed always with us. But how should we evaluate the answer and actions of Jesus at the level of compassion for the poor?
What role does charitable giving play in Christian faith, and how would you suggest these two questions be resolved?
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:19am
Isn't there in the Christian tradition a more extreme strand of thought on charity, that requires people to give up everything to follow Christ? And I think there have been at various times, from antiquity to the present, ascetic movements that give everything to the poor and keep nothing for themselves (I think various Catholic saints-tales deal with this issue too). So is the question of "where to stop" something a Christian should be considering?
I grew up in the Panama Canal Zone where I was considered the “wealthy white American” and we were surrounded by extreme poverty, even having maids, gardeners, etc. come to our home. As a child I was plagued by this very question and still wrestle with it. In some ways I think to each of us is given our own path for what we are to give back. The challenge is our ability to recognize what this is for our self, personally. The way I experience Jesus is he was so in tune with his own mission that he was able to see clearly what was appropriate for the moment. I also like Ken Wilber’s model, if you are familiar with it.
Charlie, you have dealt us one of the toughest moral questions to answer. I don't think there is any level where one can feel fully at ease on the question while being able to lawfully afford and enjoy a comfortable existence knowing that others less fortunate lack life's necessities. I do recognize that no one has resources sufficient to eradicate the needs of all, so even the most generous must engage in a sort of prioritizing or triage. Ultimately this comes down to a situation such as there being two starving children in my presence with me having enough food to feed one for two days. One of the children is my own, the other is not. What do I do with the second day's food quota? I gather you don't have an answer to the question you pose. I don't either, short of the ultimate (i.e., sell all you have and give it away)---but who qualifies there?