Released last Monday, the new-old Band Aid Christmas single, recorded by famous musicians in order to raise money to fight the Ebola crisis, turned out to be a bit controversial. The first million pounds was earned within five minutes, which was really impressive. On the other hand there were suggestions or even thinly veiled accusations that wealthy white musicians (including some who are notorious for their dodgy tax arrangements) were cynically calling on us mere mortals to part with our money instead of donating a fraction of their own wealth. But maybe they did, though without shouting about it from the rooftops, and keeping it quiet in line with Jesus’ advice: ‘whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you. […] Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret’ (Matthew 6:2-4) There have been other aspects raised and discussed regarding the initiative; the whole Giving controversy is just another part of the much longer and wider ongoing discussion about welfare and charity.
Today’s gospel presents a vision of Judgement Day when people are divided into two groups: the saved and the condemned. The only criteria that count are charitable acts done or not done by those being judged: ‘I was hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or in prison, or a stranger and you didn’t come to my help.’ Other things – like piety, religious affiliations or political views – apparently don’t matter at all. So, this vision seems to show a clear-cut view that charitable acts are the only valid and valuable response to poverty and hardship experienced by those around us. And certainly that is true to some extent, but what does it really mean in practical terms? Is it just about distributing money or material goods to those who claim they need them?
Modern welfare provided by the state has given a much greater sense of security than that experienced by previous generations. Sadly these great arrangements, put in place to play a mostly supportive role in time of adversity, have been adopted by some fraudsters as their way of life, deliberately dodging the system for their own benefit, with the taxpayer picking up the tab. Consequently some people have grown suspicious of the whole idea, and of those who benefit from it. The welfare system also suffers from being an instrument to achieve political goals rather than something considered on its own merits and purposes. My own, limited experience over many years has made me rather cautious and investigative when someone knocks on my door requesting help, usually in the form of hard cash or – much rarer – some material goods. It’s always a dilemma, how to be helpful and supportive without being shamelessly exploited.
I think the main question regarding charity is the question about its ultimate purpose. In my opinion it’s all about discovering, developing and enhancing the full potential of an individual; a potential that varies for each and every one, and which might change across the course of life. The main requirement, though, remains the same: it’s a rather long-term engagement, because finding and developing a person’s potential requires time and quite a close relationship. For those doing the supporting it’s a permanent learning curve, perfecting their patience, empathy, understanding and love – though these must remain only by-products of putting the person of concern at the centre of interest. Charitable involvement reaches its ultimate goal when those who have benefited from it start acting in a similar fashion towards others. Charity is not about making ourselves feel better, but about helping others to find themselves.