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.
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)