Loving our neighbor is required of us all. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard this past Sunday, provides a template for doing so. We have a responsibility to recognize human need and misery, and to respond with both personal care and material generosity.
In an affluent society with rapidly changing demographics, however, this takes some thinking through. Few of us today experience the face-to-face familiarity of small communities. Many of us live in suburbs and commute to work, leapfrogging over poorer neighborhoods.
The media, of course, present us with many images of needy people, but only a few of us encounter those people in our daily lives. Yet there are true pockets of human misery even in our developed world, from the inner city to rural settings.
There are people in chronic need on the streets. In metropolitan areas, we see them on street corners and the steps of churches. Some are emotionally disturbed; others suffer from PTSD; a few are just down on their luck; and, some are gaming the system. The material poverty in many American inner cities is only a shadow of the despair in other parts of the world. But the emotional and spiritual desolation can be more devastating.
Priests who work with the Missionaries of Charity find that the sisters gently dissuade them from giving money directly to the needy. Tossing them a few coins is far easier than what they really need: time-consuming, personal care. People living destitute, isolated lives – those who truly and personally care for them tell us – need human interaction even more than they need money. It’s often lack of personal connections that has led to their plight.
So it isn’t easy to be a Good Samaritan in our circumstances. The Good Samaritan tended to the physical needs of the robbery victim, and also gave money for a sort of institutional care: “And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” (Luke 10:35)
Cash given to people on the street often only lets them postpone finding work or seeking help. So if you know you’ll be seeing people who are poor in the course of the day, a modern Good Samaritan might pack an extra sandwich or beverage. Or commit to something even more substantial in terms of time and trouble by volunteering in soup kitchens or other relief efforts.
Suburban churches collect considerable amounts from poor boxes. Pastors, working with parish finance councils, generally disburse those funds to organizations that serve the needy. Occasionally a parishioner, too, may need temporary help because of some crisis. It’s good for parishes to find ways so that parishioners in such circumstances won’t be overly embarrassed to approach their pastors.
By the way, pastors should never accept personal thanks for any disbursement from the poor box. They need to be good stewards of parish resources, of course, but the real generosity lies with almsgiving parishioners.
Similarly, a good society – usually local communities (as a matter of subsidiarity) – should provide for the basic needs of those who are down on their luck. But it should be clear – as it usually is not these days – that taxing citizens to help the poor is not what the Bible calls “charity.”
Such disbursements are really a type of distributive justice (and the virtue of solidarity), mediated through the political process. Over time, we’ve learned that not all such programs work, and some even harm the very people they are meant to help. But there’s a place for well targeted and properly monitored forms of social assistance.
Some organizations qualify as charities according to the IRS, but not according to God’s law. Planned Parenthood gets $500 million a year of taxpayer money, and also receives private tax-deductible donations for funding 330,000 abortions a year (and for covertly harvesting and selling baby body parts). This so-called charity is really a monstrous killing machine.
Some organizations are also better at raising money than using it on authentically charitable works. The Good Samaritan of today who wants to give to charitable organizations should heed Eric Hoffer’s warning: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
Part of being a Good Samaritan today means exercising proper vigilance, without which charities can become bloated with staff and a “money pit” of endless aggressive fundraising appeals.
As non-profits know only too well, however, there’s also a certain kind of donor who thinks charitable work ought to operate virtually without administrative costs. This is unrealistic. Even the Missionaries of Charity receive – and deserve – food and lodging in the exercise of their holy apostolate.
We also need to examine our consciences when we give. As we know from the highest authority, the quite proper impulse to practice Christian charity can be ruined by the desire for admiration: “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mt. 6:2-4)
In the end, we have to recognize that all the governmental programs on earth and private charities are unable to alleviate human suffering on a vast scale. One of the consequences of the Fall is that the poor, in a material or spiritual sense, we always have with us. Lay people ought to work to create just and effective socio-economic systems. But a generous spirit of Christian ministry to the poor is the necessary yeast that supplements and surpasses the workings of every merely economic order.
*Image: The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) by Vincent van Gogh, 1890 [Kröller-Müller Museum , Oterloo, Netherlands]