Prayer is an ever-expanding challenge. There are two basic options: either we deepen our prayer life, or it will grow dull and lifeless. This isn’t as surprising as it may sound.
Marriages face the same challenge. Either a couple will grow in their appreciation for each other, or they will drift apart. Similarly with learning, either we keep learning new things or our minds will become sluggish and passive. There is no middle ground.
The challenge is also true when it comes to the practice of almsgiving. Either we will grow in our concern for those in need, or we will become increasingly immune to their suffering. So let’s look at this second “wing of prayer” that can help us come closer to Jesus in Lent. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to give us a compassionate heart for people who are in need.
Jesus’ Heart for the Poor. Jesus has always had a special place in his heart for the poor, the homeless, the sick, and the marginalized. Scripture tells us that these are the people he came to rescue (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus spoke about his concern for the poor on many occasions. He told his disciples, “Give to the one who asks of you”(Matthew 5:42). He told a parable about sheep and goats, ending with this surprising statement: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (25:40). And he told a parable about a poor man, named Lazarus, and the rich man who paid a steep price for ignoring him (Luke 16:19-31). Let’s also not forget that Peter, Paul, and John, along with countless stories in the Old Testament, talk about the value of almsgiving as well.
But more than just speaking about the poor, Jesus united himself with the poor. He spent far more time with them than he did with the rich. He walked with them. He lived as one among them. His heart resonated with them.
This doesn’t mean that Jesus rejected the wealthy. He spent time with a number of wealthy people: a Pharisee named Simon, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimethea, for example. He accepted financial help from a number of wealthy women: Joanna, wife of Chuza, and Susanna. But as he once said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do” (Mark 2:17). So he devoted the vast majority of his time tending those who were sick or suffering in some way.
A Bother? Or a Brother? This special love for the poor is at the heart of our call to give alms. More than just giving money, Jesus wants us to feel that pain of people in need. He wants us to be concerned about the ones who don’t have a home to live in or who have only rags for clothes. He wants us to feed the hungry not just because it’s a good idea, but because our hearts break at the thought of any of God’s children going to bed on an empty stomach. He wants us to visit the elderly and the prisoners out of a desire to offer them the companionship they so lack.
There is a one-letter difference between the word “brother” and the word “bother.” But that one letter marks out a world of difference. People who are in need are not a bother disrupting our comfort. They are our brothers and our sisters looking to us for help. They are just as much children of God as we are. They are loved by God just as deeply as we are. They deserve our help because they are part of our family.
So no matter who you are and no matter how much or how little you have, Jesus expects you to share what you can.
A Matter of the Heart. On the one hand, the message of almsgiving is simple and clear. God wants us to be generous with our money and time. He wants to see the people who have make sacrifices for the people who have not. But on the other hand, Jesus wants us to know that it’s not just a matter of giving time, money, and talent. Almsgiving is a matter of the heart.
One day, Jesus and his disciples were observing people as they put money in the Temple treasury. They saw “many rich people put in large sums” (Mark 12:41). Surely, all of these people pleased the Lord. But then they saw a poor widow donate a few small coins. This donation pleased Jesus more than anything else he had seen that day. “This poor widow put in more than all the other contributors,” he told his disciples. “For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood” (Mark 12:43-44). It wasn’t the amount of money the woman gave that mattered; it was the generosity and devotion of her gift that brought a smile to Jesus’ face.
Even today, Jesus sees what we give and he sees our motives. He knows how much we care for the poor. He knows if we are giving as if to the Lord or if we are giving only out of obligation. The story of the poor widow tells us that even if you have little and yet give away a portion of that little, you will be honored.
The Cry of the Poor. When it comes to caring for the poor, one of the most deceptive traps we can fall into is taking an overly spiritual approach and being concerned only with the welfare of people’s souls. In this approach, a “poor” person is someone who is not being nourished by the sacraments, by prayer, or by the Word of God. Certainly this lack of spiritual provision makes a person less rich, and certainly we ought to be concerned with the eternal nature of people’s souls. But this kind of thinking limits us. It can lead us to neglect those who are materially poor. It can lead us to be indifferent to their material suffering and convince us that this most basic kind of poverty isn’t really our problem.
While this flawed approach to poverty may play a part in our neglect of the needy, the most significant reason we neglect the poor is because of our own sin. We tend toward selfishness and laziness. We overlook social issues because we are too caught up in our own concerns. We convince ourselves either that it’s not our problem or that the problem is so big that we won’t make a difference even if we try.
But God wants to open our ears so that we can hear the cry of the poor. He wants us to know that he has called his Church to be an advocate for the poor, the prisoners, the marginalized, and the suffering. If Jesus were standing in front of us right now, he would probably say, “I have called you to care for the needs of those who have not. My Church is called to pursue justice on their behalf. I have called you to love them.”
The Good Samaritan. Saint Augustine once said that Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was about the way the Lord wants to help us and care for us. According to Augustine, the Samaritan man was Jesus, who came and lifted us up and cared for us when no one else would. After tending to our most pressing needs, he brought us into the Church—the “Inn”—to be cared for (Luke 10:34). He even paid the price for the care we receive.
Jesus has been so generous to us, so how can we repay him for all that he has done for us? Now, we who have been lifted up from death to life and brought into the Church, need to do just as the Samaritan—as Jesus—did. We need to go out of our way to care for the poor. While we may be limited in the amount of money or food we can give, we can always give what we have. We can help them overcome a financial crisis or a health crisis so that they can get back on their feet. Mother Teresa changed the world because she went out of her way to help the poor. If she were here today, she would say, “They, the people I served, helped me more than I helped them.”
May we all hear the cry of the poor this Lent. May we do what we can to help those in need. May we make sacrifices—giving up some of our food, our money, or our time to those people who can really use a helping hand. May we all choose to be a “Good Samaritan” to as many as we can.