CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME
I was attending Sunday Mass on a small island in the Philippines. During his homily the priest surprised me by using as an example something that wasn’t even yet available on that island: the Internet. He said that people celebrate how, electronically, we can communicate with each other all around the world. But he asked, very pointedly, “Is there really more communicating going on? Do we communicate with people in our own home?”
His questions made me realize how easy it is for us to get caught up in the novelty of a wonderful new method of communication, and fool ourselves into believing that this new technology somehow relieves us of the age old challenge of communicating with those close at hand.
Like communication, charity needs to begin at home. When I was a teenager my mother would receive compliments about me from people outside our family. But this was not the same son my mother know at home. And so she would say to me: “Devil at home, angel away.” She was trying to teach me that love begins at home.
Jesus, on the other hand, teaches us that our love must also extend beyond the home, beyond our immediate circle of family and friends. In Luke 16:19ff, Jesus tells us that the rich man is condemned to hell precisely because his love failed to include Lazarus, the pitiful poor man who used to beg at the rich man’s door.
I used to wonder why Jesus added the last part of that parable, where the rich man wants to warn his five brothers, so that they at least might avoid ending up in the fires of hell. The damned rich man seemed to still care about his brothers. Finally I realized that this was the whole point of the story. Jesus wanted to make it abundantly clear that loving our brothers alone is not enough to keep us out of hell. Our love must be more than expanded self-love. Genuine love is selfless, mirroring God’s universal love. It goes beyond our household to embrace all the needy God places in our path. Jesus wants us to ask ourselves, who are the Lazarus’ lying at our door?
One of Jesus’ most famous parables has the same message. The Samaritan of Luke 10:25-37 is “good” because his compassion extends even to a Jew, the enemy of his people. Love of neighbor, Jesus teaches, encompasses anyone and everyone who needs our assistance.
Before the Samaritan stopped to assist the man who had been beaten by thieves, Jesus tells us that a Jewish priest came down the same road, saw the man in need, but walked on by. I wonder what would have happened if, instead of a stranger, the priest had come upon his mother or father, or his sister or brother, after they had been mugged? One hopes that the priest would have stopped to help them. Presumably he would have also stopped for a cousin or a friend.
But what if the victim had only been a distant relative or a casual acquaintance? Would the priest have stopped? We don’t know. But we do know that somewhere between his immediate family and friends, and the stranger, the priest had drawn a circle of caring that included his loved ones, but left the stranger out He did not see the needy stranger as his responsibility, and so he crossed over to the other side of the road and walked on by. It was not the priest, but the Samaritan foreigner, who loved his neighbor. Do our hearts need to be stretched, our circle of love enlarged? Have we left anyone, or any group, outside?
In all the Scriptures, only Matthew 25:31ff gives us a preview of the Last Judgment. Here Jesus tells us beforehand the exact criteria by which everyone will be judged. We will be welcomed to, or excluded from, eternal life not because we went to a particular church, or said particular prayers. Such religious activities are great and useful only to the extent that they help us to put our love into action: to feed and cloth and care for, not just our family and friends, but, Jesus tells us, the “least important” among us. Are we preparing to pass that all important final exam, the Last Judgment?
Yes, charity begins at home. But, if it is genuine love, it does not end there.
Ronald Stanley, O.P.