When I was ten I memorized St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 13th chapter (in the King James translation). I am not sure what it was that drew me to this particular passage other than the fact that I happened on it and thought it was beautiful. I read it so often that the memorization was more of an accident than something I had intended. The 13th and final verse, “And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
We are now in the season of bell ringing and red collection pots sitting at the entrances of grocery and department stores. Although the Salvation Army does many wonderful things, I have a few issues with some of their interpretation of the Christian message. As a result I do not contribute my spare change or dollars as I walk in and out to do my shopping. (In saying this, I do not mean to discourage any of you – if you feel that is the way you want to extend yourself in charitable activity).
I prefer to do my giving in a more interpersonal way – to someone I see in need. And in today’s economy their numbers are legion.
This September I was driving a friend to run some errands for both of us. We came to an intersection and a tall, emaciated-looking African-American man whom I thought to be in his 50’s approached the car – obviously looking for a hand out. He had a crutch under his right arm – on his right foot he wore a shabby athletic shoe. His left foot was bare and dirty from his dragging it along the street.
As he approached my window, I reached in my pocket and pulled out a $5 bill. He came over and said, “Can you help me?” I gave him the bill. He thanked me profusely, said his name was Joshua and asked me to pray for him. I told him that I would. He made his way back to the curb as the light changed and the traffic began to flow down the street.
As we drove, my friend looked at me and said, “Boy oh boy – you are a real sucker. I can’t believe you gave that con artist bum five dollars.”
The insensitivity of that statement (both to Joshua and to me) really stunned me. So I tried to reason with my friend using some plain old common sense syllogistic logic.
I said, “Can we begin by saying that one of two things is true? Either he is a person in legitimate need – or he is, as you say – a con artist.” My friend agreed with that beginning premise.
“Okay. Let’s say he is truly needy. Then my giving him the money has to improve his situation. I am not going to question what he is going to do with it – whether he spends it on food or booze is not my concern. But if he truly needs the money then he is a little better off having interacted with me. Would you agree?” My friend agreed with that.
“The alternative is that you are right and he is indeed a con artist bum. Well, let me set up a situation where the con is working very well. In fact, Joshua is so good that he is able to find fifty people like me each of whom gives him five dollars every day that he does his con. And he is diligent about his business – he works every day of the year. By my quick math, that brings him in almost two hundred thousand dollars a year. So here’s my question.”
“If you knew that by walking with a crutch, wearing an old athletic shoe and dragging around a bare foot you could earn $200,000 a year – would you do it?”
My friend who is quite well-off immediately said, “No.”
So I said, “Well the next time I see Joshua I will tell him that you are not going to be competing for a place on his street corner. And I imagine that will make him happy.”
I ended our conversation on the subject by telling my friend that my father never refused to give some change to anyone who asked for it. He never questioned their motivation or their need. And he used to say, “There but for the grace of God go you or I.”
I learned that lesson from dad and from St. Paul. Truly – the greatest of these gifts is charity.