Give for charity [alms] that which is within you; and see, everything will be made clean for you. But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:41-42)
This is where I fall short on my obligations to the rest of the world in a big way. But what are those obligations? What is charity? When charity is thought of as ‘love’ I’m good at that. My favourite part of a church service is called ‘The Peace’ when you embrace your neighbour on the pew, which, it’s true, is a bit more social than godly if you already know them, but if you don’t you feel a wonderful sense of kinship with all humanity. You feel, ‘We’re all in this strange world together, mate, and we’ll make the best of it, you and I.’ …
The difficulty about charity is that there is a power relationship between the person who gives and the person who receives. The one who gives has the power; the one who receives just has to grin and say thank-you. No wonder the ‘needy’ hate being given people’s cast offs, while the middle classes happily scour the racks in charity shops for bargains. No wonder Africa hates being given our out-of-date medicines, when we at home don’t even bother to look. Does this mean, then, that if we give we have to remain anonymous so that the person who receives doesn’t have to feel grateful to us? If charity, on the other hand, is love, doesn’t that make helping someone else part of a personal relationship, not a power relationship? Yet most people I know would feel hugely insulted if I wrote them out a cheque: their pride would always be greater than their need.
So basically what we do is give through charities, so that we feel good and no one has to feel indebted to us. Yet even this is very, very difficult. My bank account usually hovers around zero, but sometimes I get a windfall and it is one of the sweetest pleasures I know to imagine how I might spend it. The feeling is light, expectant. I find myself looking in the windows of shops, feeling I’ve won a raffle prize and that anything might be mine. The sum I’m talking about is £150—never enough to invest or treat too seriously, but enough for a beautiful pair of boots. And then the autobank tells me to donate my money to Africa, and I freeze.
A couple of years ago our Bishop came to visit the village church and he told us ‘Christians’ in no uncertain terms that it was our duty to give one tenth of our income to the Church, or to Church-sponsored charities. I collared him afterwards and asked, ‘What if I’m in debt? Is it my duty to get more in debt?’ He told me that I should ‘re-prioritize’. I had to think about that. I am conscious of the need to support our local shops and we even have a real live milkman: but should we be shopping in Asda and pass on any savings we make to charity? We have one holiday a year and go out to dinner on our wedding anniversary – should we be forgoing those? We have a lovely house and garden, bought long before the housing boom: should we be selling up? Our cars are worth £300 each: not much leverage there.
So when I get the letters from all these charities asking for money, my head seizes up with anxiety. I keep them, I don’t even throw them away. I always think, ‘One day, I’m just going to be so, so generous.’ Ω
Note: Why charity? Some translations list charity in the fruit of the spirit; others translate it as ‘love’. Each is trying to capture the Greek word ‘agape’, which means ‘self-giving love’. Although agape doesn’t mean alms-giving, or charity in the modern sense, the later can be a sign of self-giving love. Other translations list ‘generosity’, where we have ‘goodness.’ They’re trying to capture a word which suggests a positive interest in the welfare of others. Again, neither goodness nor generosity are encapsulated by alms-giving or charity; yet alms-giving or charity can be one element of seeking the welfare of others. This reflection plays at the intersection of all these ideas.
Reflect: When do you feel a sense of kinship with all humanity? Is it when you give money away? How about in conversation or even just a handshake with another? What is one way that you express agape, that is, self-giving love?
What is this? Lent is the 40 days, excluding Sundays, before Easter. Traditionally it is a time of reflection and pilgrimage. To help you on this journey, Sanctuary has put together 40 stories from people both within and beyond the congregation, with associated questions for reflection and prayer. A reading will be uploaded every day of Lent. This year’s theme is Fruit of the Spirit. Why? Read this. #Lent2022. Real People, Real Stories: 40 Readings for Lent © Sanctuary, 2022. From Olivia Fane. The Conversations. London: Vintage, 2014: 170-172.
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