Giving to the poor is good for our health

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  • September 5, 2013

We need to give to the poor, not because they need it, though they do, but because we need to do that in order to be healthy. That’s an axiom which is grounded in Scripture where, time and again, we are taught that giving to the poor is something that we need to do for our own health.

We see this truth expressed in many religions and cultures. For example, a number of indigenous North American people practised something they called potlatch. This was a festival, sometimes attached to the celebration of a birth or wedding, at which a rich person gave away gifts to the community. Its primary purpose was to ensure a certain distribution of wealth but also to ensure that wealthy individuals stayed healthy by being solicitous in terms of not accumulating too much wealth. Too much excess, it was believed, left a person unhealthy. This has been a perennial belief in most cultures.

In Christianity we have enshrined this in the challenge to be charitable to the poor and we have classically seen our giving to the poor as a virtue, rightly so. Charitable giving is a virtue; but, for a Christian, perhaps it’s more obligation than virtue. When we look at the Law of Moses in Scripture we see that a certain amount of giving to the poor was prescribed by law. The idea was that giving to the poor was an obligation, not a negotiable moral option. Simply put, the Law of Moses obligated people, legally, to give to the poor.

Scripture abounds with examples of this. Consider, for example, these precepts and laws:

o First of all, the Law of Moses assumed that everything we have belongs to God and is not really ours. We are only its stewards and guardians. We may enjoy it at God’s pleasure, but ultimately it’s not ours (Leviticus 25, 23).

o Every seventh year, all slaves were to be set free and each was to take with him or her enough of the master’s goods to be able to live an independent life (Deuteronomy 15, 14).

o Every seventh year all economic debts were to be cancelled (the original meaning of the “statute of limitations”).

o Every seventh year one’s land was to lie fallow and enjoy its own Sabbath. During that year, the land’s owner not only didn’t sow anything, he or she didn’t reap anything either. The poor were to reap whatever the fields and vineyards produced that year.

o And, at all times, landowners were forbidden to reap and harvest the corners of their fields, with the intent that these edges were to be reaped by the poor.

o Finally, even more radically, every 50th year all lands were to be restored to the original tribe or household who had first owned them. One’s “ownership” of property had a certain time limit. Things weren’t yours forever.

Moreover doing all of this was not considered as virtue; these were laws, legal obligations.

And there was a double intent behind these laws. On the one hand, they were intended for the health of the one who was giving something away to the poor and, at the same time, they were an attempt to ensure that the poor did not become so destitute so that they would have to steal what they needed in order to live.

We have much to learn from this as a society. For the most part we are generous and charitable people. We give away some of our surplus and, despite warnings from professionals who work with street people that this isn’t helpful, our hearts are still moved by those begging on our streets and we continue to slip them money (even as we don’t believe their claim that they need money for food or bus fare). For the most part, our hearts are still at the right place.

But, we tend to see this as something we are doing purely for someone else without realizing that our own health is a vital part of the equation. Further, we tend to see this as virtue more than as obligation, as charity more than justice. And perhaps it’s for this reason that, despite our good hearts and our generosity, the gap between the rich and the poor, both with our own culture and within the world as a whole, continues to widen. Millions and millions of people continue to fall through the cracks without getting the benefit, in law, to reap the corners of our wealth and have their debts forgiven every seven years.

We need to give to the poor because they need it, admittedly; but we need to do it because we can’t be healthy unless we do this. And we need to see our giving not as charity but as obligation, as justice, as something we owe.

On this deathbed, Vincent de Paul is reputed to have challenged his followers with words to this effect: It is more blessed to give than to receive — and it is also easier!

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at www.ronrolheiser.com.)

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