In ancient times, the poor and sick were relegated to the streets, begging for what they needed. They were generally looked on as people who were cursed, not worth caring for, or that there situation was the result of sin.
Then Jesus came and showed people a whole new way. He taught that we are all God’s children and we are responsible for the care of our brothers and sisters. In Matthew 26, a woman is chastised for anointing Jesus’ head with expensive perfume because, they said, the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus says to them, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (v11) Numerous times the New Testament books and letters tell us that we, as Christians, are obligated to care for those who are less fortunate. In our faith, we have the Corporal Works of Mercy. Based on Matthew 25:34-40, and other Bible texts, they are:
To feed the hungry.
To give drink to the thirsty.
To clothe the naked.
To harbour the harbourless. (also interpreted today as To Shelter the Homeless)
To visit the sick.
To visit the imprisoned (classical term is “To ransom the captive”)
To bury the dead.
The early Christians, and later various religious orders, built hospitals and shelters for the sick to be cared for, even if they couldn’t pay. The Brothers, Sisters, and priests who ran these institutions worked tirelessly from morning till night, for virtually no pay – only their own food, clothing, and shelter. They often begged themselves in order to raise money and food to care for their patients.
Now, for the first time in history, the government is expected to take over the care of the poor. This was never the intention of our founding fathers nor anyone involved in the creation of our country. With increased regulations, laws, and paperwork, the government has usurped the ability of charitable organizations to effectively give direct help to the poor. I’m not romanticizing the way things “used to be,” as I’m sure it was not a perfect system, but what has happened has created a virtually impossible situation where religious orders can not afford to truly help the people at ground level. This has happened in food distribution, as well as in healthcare and schools to the point that, even in organizations that still retain a religious name or affiliation, there may be little to no actual involvement by religious persons and it is the name only which signifies who they are associated with. Obviously, it is not only the government intrusion that has made things difficult – declining numbers of people in the religious life have taken a huge toll on their ability to fill the needs of the poor – but the food stamps and Medicaid programs both began in the 1960s, the same time as the number of people responding to call of the religious life began dropping, as well as the cultural upheaval in our country. So much changed during that decade, it’s hard to know where more blame falls or if it is on everything equally. What’s clear though is that we are now in an era where the government is EXPECTED to care for the poor. If a religious organization can help too, that’s great, but the general expectation is that the government should be taking care of us if we can’t do it ourselves.
To make matters even worse, charitable giving by individuals has decreased over the years, in large part because many people feel like there are “government programs for that,” and they are already paying into those so why should they give more to other charities? The reality, however, is we all know only a small percentage of our tax money actually gets to the people. The rest is caught up in office expenses, payroll for employees, etc. In contrast, if you give $100 to a Sister of Charity, she’s going to turn around and immediately use the entire amount to buy food or clothing for people in need. Outside of any government mandates or regulations, the religious organizations rely on volunteers, donations, and keeping costs low – which is kind of the opposite of government agencies.
So, where does that leave us? I don’t know. We are our brothers’ keepers, that’s for certain, but it often seems like the people who are the most concerned or who give the most of their time, are also barely scraping by. There’s been a lot in the news lately about Pope Francis’ statement about the “redistribution of wealth.” Contrary to what the media reports, he’s not talking about Communism, a form of government strictly condemned by the Church, but rather the idea that wealth is a gift – and a responsibility. Someone who works hard and earns money is entitled to buy what they like, but is it fair if they have 5 cars, 2 houses, and eat steak every night while someone else starves? To say this, is not the same thing as saying that everyone ought to be equal, it is saying that every human being is inherently important and deserves what they need to live. It is saying that those who have been gifted with good health, intelligence, and the ability to earn more, need to consider the needs of those who are less fortunate. It is saying that those who are in a position to, provide good paying jobs and fair wages that enable their employees to earn a living, as well as keeping prices fair so that people can afford to purchase their products. It is also saying that we, as individuals, do what we can, volunteer where we are able, give what we can afford, to good reputable organizations that give real help to people in need.
Everything is so messed up and out of whack. Prices keep getting higher and wages can’t keep up. People talk about raising the minimum wage. I don’t know where they think the money is going to come from. If a business owner is forced to pay all of his employees $3 more per hour, something has to change. They need to either, let some employees go, cut hours, or raise prices dramatically. Think about it – for a small business owner with 10 part time employees, that’s an additional $600/week in payroll they have to pay out (10 employees x 20 hours each x $3). That’s an extra $2400/month. Where will that come from? If he raises prices, he will lose business. If he has to let people go or cut hours, has the raise really helped anyone? And then if everyone raises their prices, that cancels out the wage increase because you’re just spending more on the products you need to buy. It’s all very frustrating and you have to wonder if it will take a crisis of some sort before things change. And when/if that happens, when/if it becomes clear at some point that the government is no longer able to help the poor, guess who will once again step in to fill the gap?
Deo Juvante, Jen