During Saturday’s opening online session of an Advent retreat I’m leading, someone asked what to do when “the least of these” are overwhelming in terms of kinds, conditions, and count.
Of course “the least of these” comes from this past Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew when those who tend to the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned are welcomed into eternal life in the reign of Christ.
My response was that Jesus’ ethic of attending to the nearest neighbor could be a way to focus. I thought but did not quote the Stephen Stills hit, “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” advice borrowed from musician Billy Preston.
For example, the Samaritan proved “good” because he tended to the stripped, robbed, and beaten traveler along the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, while the priest and Levite passed by, perhaps on their way to the Temple. Ritual requirements of the time would have rendered them unclean and unable to enter the temple, given the man’s condition.
But most of us are not on our way to perform such solemn duties. Rather, we are picking up the kids or the dry cleaning or groceries for dinner. Unlike Jesus, we don’t live in a world expecting that the kingdom of God could break in before we get to Kroger’s. So we prioritize.
The questioner was lamenting that we are torn among many divergent needs in our communities. How do we handle that?
NPR recently reported a study indicating that people are more likely to give to a cause when it’s singular or limited. Feature a homeless person or an abused animal and donations pour in. But if you add “there are millions of people with no shelter” or “there are millions of animals mistreated,” donors are overwhelmed and feel their gift would make little difference, and give less or not at all.
From time to time I have felt guilty that I do not volunteer at a soup kitchen. I have had to remind myself that my blog and my books and my correspondence offer a bit of spiritual soup for readers’ souls, and given that it brings in very little money, I do most of what I do as a volunteer. It is my calling rather than a job.
I can’t do everything. Neither can you. But we can each do something.
Forget about the millions. Think about one neighbor. A Palestinian. An Israeli. A Syrian refugee. An Ebola patient. A wounded veteran. A violated woman. A transgender child. An undocumented immigrant. An elderly person. A youth with little hope. A homeless pet.
Then figure out how you can make that individual’s life a little better, either personally or through existing organizations. And for God’s sake, let’s all do what we can to influence public policy, the most extensive and inclusive way of helping “the least of these.”
This week I learned that the gay priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was once asked how best to believe. A spiritually “sophisticated” response was anticipated, but Hopkins said only, “Give alms.”
Maybe a case of spiritual “practice makes perfect”?
Other research indicates that the same area of the brain is pleasured when we give as when we meditate or win the lottery. So, let’s feel good as well as believe by attending to a neighbor, nearby or across the globe. It’s a better bet than playing the lottery!
Related Post: Our Own Fiscal Cliffs
Who made ya, baby? Consider reading this post for American Thanksgiving tomorrow: The Making of You
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