Saturday, December 22, 2012

Can You Give Too Much?

Charity is always patient and kind.
My neighbor seems to be a man who never stops asking.  Out of work, struggling to find odd jobs, accepting some demeaning labor, yet still he needs.  At first he worked for money from me, but I have no more work to give him (and lately he seemed not too diligent in doing the work I did find).  He’s downsizing, at my recommendation I think, and moving to a smaller house, and will have money to pay his debts --- soon.  But with each time he calls, I find myself asking the man in the mirror:  Am I helping him with this continuous lending?  Will he ever pay you back?  Your friends counsel you that you are a fool.  Are you?  (And perhaps I shouldn’t be looking in the mirror, but at the cross on the wall?)
Happy be the man who considers the poor and the weak. The Lord will save him.  Ps 41
It feels like the Advent readings in the Liturgy of the Hours pound at me every day:  Have faith!  Trust in the Lord!  Do good, and He will repay you many-fold.  And then I go home and the phone rings again:  “I hate to ask you but …”  And even if my answers are kind, where is my heart?  How much to I really trust?  How patient and kind am I?
Everyone should see how unselfish you are.  Phil 4
I have saved for my retirement, likely more than I will ever need (?), but then I think of dad’s retirement pension --- initially more than he was making when he worked!  Yet, with inflation the value diminished; and now, 30 years later, the $1500/ month mom receives does not seem such a large amount.  And what will mine be worth in the future?  I think on these things, my potential needs.  How do I stack those things against the real, immediate needs of others?  And what if the others asking help are ones who, it seems, will not help themselves?
If you trust in the Lord and do good, then you will live in the land and be secure. Ps 37
I thought on the Parable of the Talents:  to whom more is given, more is expected.  Based on this the Lord concludes “how hard it is for a rich man to get into heaven,” because much is expected of him.  And to another rich man Jesus said: “Give all away and follow me,” but the rich man couldn’t bring himself to do that, echoing the message of Parable of the Talents.  It’s hard for a rich man to let go of his riches.
But in Talents the rich man didn’t have to give away his riches.  In Talents, Jesus valued the one who had been given five talents and returned ten --- he invested it wisely.  What would Jesus say, I wonder, if the one who had been given five came back and said:  “You gave me five talents, but I took four and gave them away to someone who had fewer.  Here is one back.”  Would that be an acceptable answer to Jesus?  Or would He say: “But it was to you I gave five and expected more back; to that other I gave less --- and that was my choice, not yours.  He was to work with what I gave him and give me return on that, not with what you gave him.  (I don’t give talents in begging, but in working?)”     
If we give in charity with nothing expected in return, and with no end to the giving, then who will be left to give?  If EVERYTHING is given by the rich to the poor, there will be no more rich, and then the poor will be no better off.  And where does the parable of the women who brought lamps to greet the bridegroom fit in?  In that parable some ran short of oil and the well-off ones wouldn’t give them any; the ones who had planned and saved were looked at favorably, not the ones who could have prepared but didn’t. 
So how do we judge which situation we are in?
The wicked man borrows without paying, but the just man is generous and gives.  Ps 37
And I just keep reading each day about how much I should give ….
Pride would not trouble me if I did the best I could with the talents I was blessed with and the results didn’t turn out to be much; I would willingly stand in a soup line.  But should I give to the one who wouldn’t?  If I gave away resources to the first person who asks, am I using these talents wisely, unlike the women with the lamps?  Should we seek to find the poor man and give to him, or give to any who says he is poor?  In the nearby college town, serious battles often occur over who will hold up the “Homeless” sign at certain intersections; many thousands of dollars a year are collected there.  Begging is a business.  In some foreign countries, I’ve read, children are blinded and lamed so their begging can yield better results.  How do you decide who is needy in the eyes of God, and how are you to use wisely the talents you are given?   
But let us not grow weary in doing good, for we shall reap our reward in due season.
Mary was asked to trust also, by an angel no less, and look at what she gave.  And then look at what she got in return.  (But I suspect my neighbor, grubby and dirty most times, is not any angel.)  How do you decide when it is right to give freely that which has been given to you, entrusted to you?  Can you give too much, wasting your gifts? 
I think and pray on these things, this Advent.
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The radio show host asked listeners to call in and tell about the best Christmas gift they ever received, or the best they ever gave --- and the thought immediately came to me.  A couple of years back I hired a man who had lost his job.  Working three part-time jobs to support his family and keep his home, he was grateful when I offered to pay him to do odd jobs around my house, as he had time.  He would work for me, but he would not accept charity. He often found time on weekends, when I wasn’t home, so I gave him a key to my house, leaving a “to-do” list on the table and an estimate of the money he would be paid at our agreed hourly rate.  And he did the jobs I listed, noting the hours and left change as appropriate, or noted what I still owed him.  Our arrangement went on for nearly two years.
On the second Christmas I had no work I could think of for him to do; he had painted and repaired and replaced virtually everything on my house.  So I wrote him a generous check and a note:  “This is not charity, but I am hiring you (at our agreed hourly rate) to pray for me.  Go to church or to your room, but spend time with God, and at least part of the time think of me.  I won’t be able to verify you’ve done the work, but I trust in you.”  I also wrote a note to my personal friends, telling them that that year I would give out no Christmas presents, trusting they would understand that there were others more in need.
I didn’t hear from “my employee” for a few months, and then I got a letter.  He thanked me for the check and assured me he “worked” the hours.  And it was one of the best “jobs” he ever had.  More recently he’d been offered a full time job at a rate comparable to the job he lost a few years ago, and so he wouldn’t be working for me anymore.  But he still would be going to church, and praying for me --- “no charge.”  He said my Christmas gift was the best he ever received, and I had a friend for life. 
He told me he had lost his home, despite finding a well-paying job.  He had gotten too far behind, and the bank wouldn’t allow him time to catch up on the payments.  But then, even before he had to move out, he found an even nicer home, a foreclosed home by a bank, that he could get into for lower payments than on the home he was losing.  He was losing, yet winning.  God was good to him. 
And He was good to me.
I never did get through to that radio talk show to tell this story of the best gift I ever gave, but the guys in the coffee shop yesterday were talking on such things, and when I repeated it to them they suggested writing it again here.  So here it is.
I gave a lot that year, to one jobless man.  He worked hard besides working for me, and God blessed him.  Perhaps I was in some way His instrument.  I’ve given a lot this year to a different man, my (soon-to-be former) neighbor who, in my perception isn’t working so hard to improve his lot.
Or perhaps, he just wasn’t given so many talents. 
It’s hard to decide how much to give. 
“Do you love me?  Tend my sheep.”  Surely this means: “If you love me, your thought must focus on taking care of my sheep, not taking care of yourself.”   -- Augustine

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