Christmas shopping, menu planning, cookie exchanges, gift swaps, new TVs, new cars, new clothes … bells, carols, gold and glitter … snowflakes, tinsel and trees … these are all wonderful, happy things. We are still a country abundantly blessed, even in our hard economy.
So, what’s been on my mind this Advent season are those who are alone, those who are losing their homes to foreclosure, those who cannot pay for medical care, those who cannot afford to turn up the heat, those who are having a can of soup for Christmas dinner, those who live in shelters, and those who live on the streets. Many who read this are generous, and as the old saying goes, “It is the poor who are most generous of all.”
What’s been on my mind also is why some people tend to be stingy when it comes to giving alms. They make generalizations and rash judgments about the worthiness of the needy individual in question.
Yet, without question — with only the absolute certainty that we were not worthy — God did what? He sent His only son, a priceless treasury of value, as a gift of love to us, though we in no way merited such a gift. We weren’t worthy then; we aren’t worthy now; and we never will be worthy of our own accord. However, we were loved then; we are loved now; and we will be loved until the end of days.
“But God commendeth his charity towards us; because when as yet we were sinners, according to the time, Christ died for us; much more therefore, being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from wrath through him.” (Romans 5:8-9)
Moreover, He put into place a safety net for our souls. Whether we fail through weakness and ignorance, or fall deliberately into sin, He calls us always and gently to repentance, sustenance, and support. Through His own system of Sacraments, we are given new chances over and over again. Even while we are in sin, we are given the grace to pray, to repent, to desire goodness, and so much as to receive good things from Him “who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
Stinginess stems from a fear of loss. We fear being generous because we’re afraid of losing something of ours, whether it be our goods, our time, or our money. The fearful, covetous heart goes so far as to hold in scorn those who do give generously, lumping them amongst the imprudent or the insane.
Yet, everything we have comes from God. It is not ours, but God’s. “For who distinguisheth thee? Or what hast thou that thou hast not received? And if thou hast received, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7) As sons and daughters of God, we’ve been commanded dozens of times to be generous.
The fear of being generous comes from a covetous heart, which doesn’t want somebody else to have what we have, or which desires to keep and amass things for ourselves. It’s similar to hoarding; in saving up our material possessions in case we need them, we crowd out space for living. When we hoard things others need, we crowd out space for loving. There are people in serious need, right in front of us, right now; and while we save up and build up and acquire and accumulate more and more, we have no room left for love. And we justify this covetousness — this desire that nobody else get what we have — by fostering a fear of being generous.
More to the point, covetousness with regard to riches “pertains less to their acquisition than to their possession or accumulation.” (John Stapleton, “Covetousness”, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, 1908.) So, it is imperative that Christians beware of justifying any form of covetousness, most especially when asked for material help from others.
There is a quote accredited to Mother Teresa of blessed memory, “Pray that you learn to see Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.” What is distressing in this case? The fear that we are giving something to somebody unworthy finds support in keywords for rash judgements: Dirty. Greasy, long hair. A pack of cigarettes in a beggar’s pocket. Or is it the cell phone a person owns? His brand of car? His pet? How quickly we leap to label the poor and justify our own covetousness!
“But,” the stingy man protests, “he might do something I wouldn’t approve of with my money!” Please re-read the fourth paragraph, if you’re someone who judges the worthiness of others asking for help. Believe me, it is far worse that we be found stingy with what God has given to us than if somebody uses our alms unworthily after we have given to them. They will be accountable to God, not us.
In this light, consider the appearance of Christ when He entered this world. Far from being revealed to us in a palace; far from royal robes and attendants; far from cleanliness and human respect, Jesus was born in a stable, which houses animals, and laid in a manger, from which animals feed. Imagine the suffocating smell of the oxen and ass; the slobber in the feeding trough; the scorn with which Mary and Joseph were probably treated.
“What’s wrong with them? Didn’t they know better than to travel thus? How careless, to end up in a stable with a baby! Idiots!”
The Son of God came into the world thus so we might all see that, being fully human as well as divine, He laid no boasts up for Himself (cf. Philippians 2:6-7). Baby Jesus acknowledged, through the humble surroundings of His birth, that everything was from the Father — even the darkness of the smelly stable into which His first holy rays of light were shining. He did not consider our unworthiness; only the Father’s love. We are commanded to do the same with others as God has done for us.
In this preparatory season of Advent, where the message “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight His paths” (Matthew 3:3; cf. Isaiah 40:3 LXX) becomes cliché, all too many are jaded to the practical applications of making room inside our hearts for baby Jesus. It is necessary to take a deep look in our hearts at whether or not covetousness is taking up precious space. It’s very likely that many suffer this sin, hidden under years of habitual self-justification and blaming the poor for their circumstances.
Nobody appeared less worthy to be the King of the Universe than that little baby boy laying on a bed of straw in a foul-smelling manger in a crowded city. Many people today would completely miss out on the opportunity to meet Jesus because of the expectations and exacting measures they’ve set up for others to be considered worthy.
Fortunately, covetousness has a remedy: love. Perfect charity casts out fear. “Fear is not in charity: but perfect charity casteth out fear, because fear hath pain. And he that feareth, is not perfected in charity.” (1 John 4:18) As you exercise charity in the form of generosity, love will grow and multiply within you and around you, eradicating fear.
Remember, God is love; his gift of Christ is love. When we exercise perfect charity, we will not fear the loss of anything; because we already know that in obeying the God’s command to be generous, to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and so forth — to obey the corporal works of mercy — we will find an endless source of deep joy.
May you have a most Blessed Christmas, and a very happy New Year, with every blessing of every good thing.