One of the traditional emphases during Lent is the duty of “almsgiving”. The tradition of the Church here comes straight out of ancient Israel and the duty that was enjoined upon the Jews by God to care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. In many ways, ancient Israel was commanded to take care of the weakest and least in their midst. For obedience to this command, great mercies and benefits were promised. For disobedience, some of the most strenuous and frightening curses are reserved. The sense that comes across very strongly throughout the Old Testament is that the most helpless are paradoxically the most favored and that God’s special tenderness is theirs (and his special fury, ours, if we despise the weak).
This theme becomes even more pronounced in the New Testament as God reveals the extent of his identification with the weak and the poor. For God is born, not in the purple, but in the filth of a stable and grows up among the anawim, the poorest of the poor, in the toolies of Nazareth. He is dirt poor all his life, eventually becoming an itinerant with “no place to lay his head.” He is accused by the Refined People of being a glutton and a drunkard. His companions are poor country folk identifiable by their backwoods twang (Matthew 26:73). He is shoved into prison and condemned to death on a trumped up charge, where he dies a slave’s death stark naked and in complete humiliation. In every way, he is at one with the most despised people on earth, those whom he himself called “the least of these” and with whom he deliberately identified himself. So the Church has always seen in the poor the face of Christ in his “distressing disguise” as Mother Teresa called it.
What we sometimes forget however, is that poverty can have many kinds of faces besides economic poverty. To be sure, economic poverty is the first and most obvious sort and we do well to care for those who do not have much of the world’s goods. But those who will handily forgive a debt of money from a beggar for a cup of coffee can often forget that there are other sorts of debts as well.
In my own life, I’ve discovered that I often speak like the unmerciful servant in the parable, not about financial debts, but about emotional and spiritual ones. I, who would never think of choking a beggar and demanding he pay me money, have sometimes found myself full of bitterness and resentment when one who is poor in flattery doesn’t pay me the compliment I thought they owed me. Never mind that they were too harried by life to notice my wonderfulness and lift their thoughts from their struggles to attend to Me and My Needs. They owed me and I was determined to squeeze what they owed me out of them, even if it meant unforgiveness. Similarly, I have often demanded of the poor in time that they pay me attention. I’ve demanded of the poor in happiness that they pay me cheerfulness when I am feeling gloomy. I’ve demanded of the poor in compassion (perhaps because nobody ever gave them any) that they have enough to share with me. There is lots of poverty in the world besides financial poverty, but for a long time I’ve been stone blind to it.
In all this, I’ve been no different than the servant in the parable who was forgiven the trillion dollar debt but who throttled the man who owed him a few bucks. This year, I’m going to try seeing poverty and giving alms wherever poverty is: to the poor in flattery, praise; to the poor in time, attentiveness to them; to the poor in happiness, a cheerful heart; to the poor in compassion, love. There’s more than one way to give alms.