When you give a man money, you don’t own a share in his soul

Several years ago, my family went through a rotten patch, and we couldn’t scrape up enough money to pay our basic bills. A friend of the family got wind of our troubles and fired off a generous check. She did the same the next month, and then next as well, always with a little note saying she hoped it could help make a dent in our expenses.

One month, we miraculously found ourselves above water. One of the most miserable parts of poverty is having to deny your kids. It almost hurts worse when they learn so quickly not to ask for even the smallest treat. So when the mail came and there was yet another check from our friend for expenses from, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, I can buy the kids a swing!”

But I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I asked her permission to spend her money on a swing. She was flabbergasted. She begged me to spend it however I saw fit, because it was a gift. It wasn’t her money; it was mine.

This is how you live the gospel. This is how you don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When she gave me the money, she didn’t give herself permission to manage my life. She wasn’t buying a share in my life or my soul or my day. She understood this better than I did.

Having been the poor, I don’t want to romanticize the poor, to paint them as some kind of holy, spotless victims who can do no wrong simply because they are poor. The poor are just people, just like the rich. Sometimes they are greedy; sometimes they are stupid; sometimes they are ungrateful; sometimes they are dishonest, just like the rich.

Sometimes poor people do dumb or dishonest things with money, even the money you gave them. (Rich people can hide or get past their dumb or dishonest actions more easily than the poor; that’s the main difference.)

I’ve been on that side of this difficult transaction, too. I’ve been the one to give money to a needy person, only to discover that he wasn’t as needy as he claimed, or he spent the money foolishly, or he spent it in a way that I thought showed an ungrateful attitude, or a million other flaws in the way he received my gift. Maybe I denied myself so that he could eat, and then he turned around and got himself a treat, and acted like it was no big deal.

That sucks. It feels horrible. No one wants to be played for a sucker. No one wants their good will offering converted into something evil or gross; and no one wants their sacrifice treated like dirt.

In situations like this: sure.  If the person you gave money to lied, don’t give him any more money. If you think the money is making his life worse, don’t give him any more money. If interacting with this person is an occasion of sin for you, maybe take a break. Find someone else who needs your gift. God knows there are always more needy people.

But this is very basic: Once you have given the money, it is no longer yours. That’s what it means to give. If you give but still want to hang on, then you haven’t really given; you’ve just tried to buy a share in another human being. Charity doesn’t come with a rubber band that you can twitch any time you feel like it, making the other fellow dance to your ideals. That’s not giving. That’s investing, and we’re not supposed to treat other people like investment property.

Scripture is full of imprecations not only to give to the poor, but to be gracious about it, or at very least to shut up about it.

Do we want any chance at all of getting into the kingdom of God? Then we have to recognize that we, all of us, are the poor — poor beyond measure — and that Christ gave recklessly to us. He gave without any hope of being paid back, without any hope that we’d use His gift well, without any hope that we’d be anywhere near sufficiently grateful. He gave up Heaven to become a man, and then gave up his body and became a dead man. That’s what He did for us. He doesn’t threaten to withdraw salvation every time we act ungrateful (which we do every day) or squander his gifts (which we do every day) or fail to shape up (which we do every day). Instead, He gives more and more.

Look at your weekly bulletin. Is there Mass? Are there baptisms? Is there confession? You’re receiving charity. Are you living up to it? I’m not. I’m a horrible investment. I’m a black hole. Christ knows this, and still He gives.

That’s what he does. And we’re going to be jerks to each other about money?

So if we give — and we must, if we can at all! — remember we’re not making an investment. We’re not teaching a lesson. We’re not purchasing a share in someone’s life. We’re imitating Christ. Christ will make our gift into something great, if we will let go of it. 

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Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)

21 thoughts on “When you give a man money, you don’t own a share in his soul”

  1. How about you get a better paying job to support your family rather than getting handouts. Laziness is not very becoming.

    1. It isn’t always possible to find a better paying job or even any job at all. I am glad when I have the opportunity to help somebody.

  2. I agree with all you say about gifts to help out friends in need. Sudden need could happen to any of us. Once help is given, we must not presume to think we can orchestrate what is done with our gift.

    However, I would like to point out it is a different matter when it comes to charities or organizations. I believe they do have accountability to their donors. When I give to a Catholic organization or charity which appears to be faithful, I expect that organization not to defy Church teaching and to use my donation prudently, for the reason it was given. I do not think that is going overboard or unreasonable.

    Very best blessings to all here – Susan, ofs

  3. We keep care packages in our car for homeless people we come across. They usually have water, granola bars, a mini deodorant, stuff like that. We don’t feel comfortable giving cash, but feel like we ought to give something.

  4. Funny you should write about giving without scrutinizing. Today was the drop-off day for our church rummage sale. Greatest rummage sale ever! Nothing is tagged; people just bring items to the cashiers and make an offer.

    Can someone lowball and sell an item later online for a much higher price? Sure, but who cares?

    The needy get what they need, the Ladies Guild raises funds, and no one can tell the differenc between the poor and the thrifty.

  5. Simcha, why on earth would you call yourself a black hole? Some of the funniest things you write are exaggerations but I can’t help but wonder if somewhere in our brains, when we write or joke about ourselves that way, we accept that assessment as the truth in some way.

    This morning I saw a drama play out that in our family compound. My sister that lives four hours away comes once a year for a one to two week vacation at our family compound. They were in their rooms when my mother discovered a serious leak in an outside faucet. My mother called the water company and they told her it was spilling 18 gallons an hour. (This is serious in drought country and when you are in the top tier of billed water consumption.) My husband and two older boys that live at the compound were gone working. The three adult men that don’t have jobs shrugged and waited for my mother to call a plumber like she always does. My brother-in-law who had been here less than 24 hours went to the hardware store, bought a new fixture, came back and fixed it. The ones that have lived here so long, and have been the recipients of an endless stream of charity did nothing. They have lost their ability to see the forest for the trees.

    1. Anna Lisa, you’ve touched on a thought I had when I first saw the headline (before reading the article). It was simply: Sometimes, when a man accepts money, he gives a piece of his soul in exchange. Of course, it’s not always the case, but the older I get and the more sad cases I see of dependent adults with their simultaneously held senses of entitlement and shattered self esteem, the less inclined I am to give outright charity to a physically able bodied adult (or teen). I no longer see straight charity as a uniformly loving option. The soft bigotry of low expectations and all that.
      I think it’s possible God sees it the same way as evidenced by how His Church operates. Of course, we don’t have a works based salvation, and the sacraments are available to all of us (no matter how miserable we may be), but we’re also not eligible for the grace that comes from receiving the sacraments unless we’re properly disposed, and that usually takes a little bit of work on our part.

      1. Thank you Eileen. I want to add too that nobody in the above situation is malicious. It’s painful for everybody involved, but in different ways. Most of all the pain is felt because it damages community. Everybody feels it viscerally, even when all anger and judgement has been resisted.

  6. Thank you for this. Maybe this seems a trivial thought but I just wanted to mention that some people do want to give to others they unexpectedly see in need but they don’t have cash on them. So many people don’t carry cash anymore. I try to carry cash just for this reason but don’t always have cash with me. I hope we never go to a cashless society.

  7. I forget off hand which sain t said how desperately we all, everyone of us, need the poor and that they in fact render us the service to be generous. In fact many saints say we need the poor to enter heaven and Christ spoke of material detachment often.

    Revelations last judgement when Christ separates those for glory and those damned, he does NOT say to those for perdition a list of sins. Many will call Him Lord, Lord and he replies I know you not. He in fact says, when did you give me a drink when I was thirsty? What did you feed me when I was hungry? When did you clothe me when I was naked?

    I’ve always been thoughtful that it’s not the list of sins he mentions. He mentions the most basic acts of non judgemental love of neighbour.

    May I, may we all, live it.

  8. I think it was St Robert Ballarmine who was warned most of the people who came to him for help didn’t really need it. He was extremely generous. He said if only one person out of ten truly needed it, he didn’t begrudge it.

  9. This reminds me of what Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’s American secretary, said about one experience with Lewis. They were approached by a beggar on the street. Lewis gave him some money. Hooper, perhaps in the American Puritan spirit, asked Lewis, “But what if he spends it on drink?” Lewis responded, “If I didn’t give him the money, I would spend it on drink.” Reference: Eric Metaxis podcast with Hooper within the last several years.

  10. Yep, we all stand in dire poverty. We need to see that in ourselves and those around us. Christ became poor so we might be truly rich.

  11. Catholic common sense–it’s a shame you even have to write a post like this, but I’m so glad you did. We can all stand reminding.

  12. Thank you for this. As more and more people stand on the side of the interstate with little cardboard signs, indignant parishioners complain that these people just want beer. Never mind that the person has only one arm and is wearing filthy clothes….but he must be up to something. My heart aches when people give with “but only if’s”. Yes, we’re all getting charity. The church doesn’t run on fairy dust. Our own Financial Chairman said he was going to say “you all complained so much about the music….well we hired someone great. So if you want to keep her……….you need to give way more money.” I think I’ll either 1) just die when he says that, maybe a swan dive off the rail of the choir loft, or 2) have to have the choir blows the roof off the place. Either way, they’re going to need more $$$$. But yeah. Thanks for this. I thought it was a wonderful article.

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