These last few Thursdays during Lent, we have been considering the traditional pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. There is perhaps a hierarchy in how much we typically associate these things with Lent. Everyone knows Lent is about fasting – or at least giving something up. And maybe some people of an old-fashioned bent make Stations of the Cross part of Lent, so there’s some prayer. But almsgiving? Other than hearing it as part of that three-part list, we don’t hear much about it.
It is an essential part of our tradition, however. Next week, we’ll look a little at some examples of the “preferential option for the poor” in the tradition. I hate to tell you, my friends, but the “liberals” who talk about the poor are, at least on this issue, way more “traditional” than those “conservatives” who don’t.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Notice that these things relate to the three key people in our lives. Prayer is about our relationship with God. Fasting is about our relationship with ourselves. Almsgiving is about our relationship with our neighbor. It’s no surprise that these three would all fit together as key to growth in the Christian life. The neighbor, you may have noticed, is pretty central to Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels, to the rest of the New Testament, and to the Catechism.
The deepest importance of our neighbor is devotion to the Church itself. St. Thomas says love of neighbor comes in insofar as when we love someone (e.g., Jesus) we also love the people they love (i.e., everyone he died for, which is everyone). It makes no sense to say we love God but we aren’t interested in the people he died for.
To say the same thing in a different way, Christianity is about communion. Philosophically, the heart of the matter is that God is the kind of good that is not diminished, but more deeply possessed, by being shared. If I give you a bite of my apple, I have less apple. But if we pray together, or I share the Gospel with you, I do not have less God. I know him and love him better by sharing him with you.
Or to put it a third way, Christ calls us into his body, the Church. Our approach to God is through Christ, and through his Church. To love our neighbor is to love the Church; to despise our neighbor is to despise the Church, and so despise our membership in Christ.
Love of God and love of neighbor, in short, are inseparable.
But why almsgiving in particular? Why the poor?
The answer is simple. Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:46) And “when you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Lk 14:12-13).
To love someone who can repay you is ambiguous. Do I love the person (and the Church, and Jesus, and God), or do I just hope I’ll get repaid? To love those who have nothing to repay is to underline, and practice, true love, just love.
It’s as simple as that. The modern Church calls this “the preferential option for the poor,” but it’s ubiquitous in the tradition. The poor, those who have nothing to repay us, have a special claim on our love, because that is where we practice truest love.
“Preferential option for the poor” doesn’t mean socialism. But it does mean that in every part of our life – including public policy and economics – we put love first, not self-interest.
I have been struck to realize that, but for me, my wife and children are widows and orphans, and so I can bring this option for the poor to my own family. But if it is so spiritualized as to lose track of real, crushing poverty, real need and a real inability to pay, we weaken our ability to live this love in our ordinary life.
This Lent, let us make some effort to try it out. To at least take the first steps toward planning something, sometime, when we practice loving those who have absolutely nothing to give us in return.
What can you do to practice disinterested love? How do you relate to the genuinely needy?