Giving to the Poor is a Matter of Justice, Not Charity

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In high school every year, we would pile into vans and go down to Tijuana, Mexico. Our mission? To build houses there the size of a typical American living room for people living in the rolling dirt-hill slums around there.

In groups of ten or so, we built these houses that probably could have been done in half the time by three or four experienced carpenters. We were just high school kids, after all. But I think the purpose of the trip wasn’t just to build houses. It was about getting us outside of our narrow, self-focused teenage lives.

It was effective. I grew to feel uncomfortable in the home I lived in. It felt too big, too gaudy. Our neighborhood felt too nice, oddly enough.

The emotion felt a lot like “guilt.” But what was there to feel guilty about? What sin did I actually commit?

That feeling surfaces every now and then. Maybe it comes when I watch the news and catch the look of an illegal immigrant crossing the border. It’s why I used to flip the channel when a commercial about starving children in Africa came on and now scroll down my Facebook feed when a picture of a child with cleft palate appears. Maybe it’s why I chose not to watch the video of George Floyd dying. Their faces seem accusatory even when they don’t mean to be.

Maybe I shouldn’t get too weepy about the downtrodden. Am I responsible for every person’s problems? Before anybody considers that a callous response, consider the kernel of truth in it. None of us is the Savior of the world. None of us can singlehandedly fix everything.

Still, there is a good reason for why I felt something close to guilt coming home from Mexico. The undeniable truth is this:

The world is not just, and that is not OK.

I use the word “just” purposefully and specifically choose not to use the word “merciful.” The word “merciful” gets the wrong point across. Being “merciful” seems to imply that the person being shown mercy doesn’t deserve it – as though us giving food to a starving man is such an over-abundant act of grace and magnanimity, we should all get trophies for it.

It is not – at least not in the Catholic conception of things. To provide for the poor woman who can’t provide for herself, to give a man the dignity of work when he can’t find work, to provide decent education to children so they have the opportunity to make something of themselves, is the just thing to do in the Catholic sense, not merely the merciful thing to do. It is what we owe our fellow man.

Even in the Old Testament, God commanded the Jews to take care of the poor.

If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens….. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

Leviticus 25:35, Deuteronomy 15:11 (NRSVCE)

Giving to the poor was the duty of the citizen of Israel. It was not some grand gesture for the shriveling masses who didn’t deserve a penny of the rich man’s purse. Despite how grateful the poor nearly always are for the little they get, God did not see the charity they received as anything less than their due.

After Christ, St. Basil the Great echoed this same sentiment.

When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.

St. Basil the Great

Why do we ignore the needs of others? It’s not always a problem of cold hearts. I want to help, but it feels overwhelming. How can I solve the homeless problem in my city when no one else has been able to? I can’t feed all the starving children in the world.

Yet saving the world isn’t entirely the point. Again, that’s God’s job. Living a life of love for God and love for my neighbor is the point. That is the only standard of success God holds any of us to.

This Advent season, I want to change the question. Not, “How can I show grace and mercy to others?”, but rather, “How can I pay back the debt of love I owe every person?” Maybe that will help me get my head on straight before Jesus comes a second time.

©2020 Catholic Anonymous

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