My Money, My Way?

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My parish sits near the intersection of a major interchange along a major cross-country interstate. My husband and I lead a music ensemble at church, and every so often at practice on Wednesday nights, we find ourselves facing people coming in off the interstate asking for help: out of gas, out of work, broken down…

It happened last night, and it underscored how unprepared we are, both as individuals and as a parish, for such situations. We tried to find someone from St. Vincent de Paul but weren’t successful, and this gentleman eventually left, apologizing for bothering us because we clearly couldn’t help him. And though he was polite, it felt like he was pointing out the disconnect between our self-satisfied perception of ourselves as people of faith and the reality of how unprepared (unwilling?) we were to help a person in need.

Situations like this always disturb me. I find myself caught between a desire to help and a gut-level suspicion that said seeker is preying on the hearts (and guilt) of those of faith. And of course, the answering twinge of conscience, because how is that attitude compatible with a Christian world view?

For forty-plus years, every time I’ve confronted this situation, good and faithful people have responded with something like, “Hey, it’s the way of the world. This is reality. You have to be suspicious or you’ll get taken advantage of by scammers.”

But is it really okay for suspicion and world-weary jadedness to be our first, let alone our final, reaction? I mean, how are we ever actually to know whether a person is genuinely in need or being lazy/irresponsible/reaping the harvest s/he has sown? We are never actually going to know that. More importantly, is it really our business? Isn’t our call to give, and let God sort out the recipients? And if the answer to those questions has anything to do with the words “it’s my money,” then aren’t we intrinsically putting mammon ahead of God? How does it damage me in the slightest to give the benefit of the doubt to those asking for aid, even if I do end up supporting the occasional scammer?

This morning, Bishop Barron’s Gospel reflection zeroed right in on this same issue: “God is not pleased with this kind of economic inequality, and he burns with a passion to set things right. …Even though it makes us uncomfortable—and God knows it does, especially those of us who live in the most affluent society in the world—we can’t avoid it because it’s everywhere in the Bible.”

It’s hard for me to imagine why anyone would come into a church at night, put themselves in the face of such humiliation, if they didn’t actually need help.

So today, this is the puzzle I’m wrestling: What is the right and proper balance of prudence with Christian charity? How do I keep from twisting the faith, in situations like these, to make it more comfortably align with worldly values—like, for instance, the attachment to the idea of “my money, my way”? Isn’t it just as likely that we react with suspicion because it absolves us of the responsibility to respond to the face of Christ in people who come to us for help?

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