Today is the memorial of St Elizabeth of Hungary–or as one of the kids joked, St Elizabeth of the Hungry.
Right. Because St Elizabeth, who was a princess, after she was widowed built a hospital and gave all she had to serve the poor.
But why should we do this? Because Jesus tells us to, but we should remember that our charitable works have a deeper dimension than simply feeding the hungry and housing the homeless because they are need food and a roof over their head.
We engage in the works of mercy not only for those practical reasons. Anybody can feed the hungry because they need lunch or house the homeless because the need a room.
When are involved in works of mercy firstly because in the poor we recognize the face of Christ and thereby recognize the innate human dignity of each person. It’s easy to see the dignity of the human person in a successful, good looking, accomplished and talented person. It is not so easy when the person is a drug addict, a murderer in prison, a panhandler or a drunk. That’s the challenge.
Secondly we are engaged in works of mercy because God is merciful to us. We give from what we have received, and the gospel teaches that when we do this we actually receive much more. Almsgiving multiplies prosperity in our lives. We are blessed, pressed down and running over. Our lives become richer as we give away our riches.
Thirdly, we are involved in works of mercy as an act of evangelization. We should never simply give people bread. We should also give them the bread of life. We share the gospel of salvation with them–not only a food parcel. This is actually much more than just a spiritually nice sounding bromide.
Our parish is in a very bad part of town and a local Protestant pastor declined to be involved in our food pantry. He said very bluntly–“We don’t give people food. We give them the bread of life. When they get saved and join the church their life is turned around and they soon get a job and take responsibility for themselves with our help.”
While I don’t agree with his approach completely, I see his point.
The more we just give people stuff the more we are reinforcing the idea that the only solution to their problems is a material solution. In fact, the real solution is more than material. It is a spiritual, life changing solution. We should not do less than give people stuff. We should do more than give people stuff.
There’s a terrific book out there called Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton. He’s a veteran charity worker and he criticizes our tendency to just give people stuff. He challenges us to be more like St Elizabeth of Hungary who actually got involved with the poor and gave them more than material answers.
Finally, we should be reminded of what a radical idea such charity was in the ancient world. Most of the world has now absorbed Jesus teaching that we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto us”. Most of the world has accepted the need to help the poor.
It was not always so.
In the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus’ life the prevalent thinking was that the stuff I took from you by force was mine because I was powerful enough to take it. It was a jungle. If you were weak and I was strong–bad luck. The Jews also had a belief that if you were poor it was your fault or it was your parents fault for some sin you had committed and if you were rich it was an obvious sign of God’s blessing.
Of course there was a level of charity, but it was a low down thing–the occasional act of pity for the poor, but there was not the deep understanding of the root of charity.
This is why Jesus’ teaching that it was difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom was so revolutionary and upsetting. Remember the disciples said, “If that is so who can enter the kingdom?!” They were shocked.
So the radical claims of the gospel stand the world on its head.