"Have you any spare change?”
If you’re a person who does much walking around a city these days you may recognize these words as the appeal of a street person.
The “times” seem to be multiplying the number of people experiencing “hard times” – individuals who are depending on public charity for a livelihood. Thus, it’s a frequent experience to meet up with individuals begging for help on street-corners, huddled in doorways or perched on a snow-bank with a sign out front to identify their plight.
If you had to resort to begging, do you think you might find some incentive in the Lenten theme of almsgiving? All my life, I’ve known that almsgiving is one of the three Lenten penitential "pillars" but I have to admit that sometimes when I’m asked on the street for help, I’m often reminded of the "What would Jesus do?" question. Well, what would Jesus do? The Gospel is very clear that I cannot easily absolve myself of the responsibility to do "something." Indeed, the First Letter of John puts it very bluntly: "He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (3:17)
And John the Baptist, in the context of what it means to be "baptized," says: "If anyone has two tunics, he must share with the man who has none; and the one with something to eat must do the same" (Luke 3:11).
The word: "alms," when traced back to its Greek root, is translated "pity" or "mercy." Almsgiving is making the needs of others (and the needy of our world), our own. And almsgiving is a component so essential to the Christian life that Pope Benedict devoted his entire Lenten Pastoral Letter
this year to that theme. He writes: "the practice of almsgiving, represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, [is] an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods." (1) He goes on to say that the command to give alms is a reminder that "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Luke 16:13).
When someone asks me for "help," I sometimes hesitate because I am uncertain as to whether my donation will really end up helping the person. At the same time, I am haunted by the command of the Gospel to recognize the beggar as my brother/sister.
Each individual request has to be heard on its own merit. But I find some resolve in realizing the difference between Jesus’ time and ours. Back then, the only source of help was one’s "neighbour." Today, the question as to "Who is my neighbour?" has a much broader base. What I am referring to is the whole realm of public assistance whereby public service groups assume responsibility for meeting the needs that arise from unemployment, illness, old age, etc. Thus almsgiving as a practice of self-denial is broadened to the whole area of giving to appeals made by such bodies as civic agencies, the Church and even the government. And hopefully these moneys filter down to the people in need who approach us on the street.
The Archdiocese of Toronto's ShareLife Campaign
offers Catholics one avenue for alleviating the burdens of one sector of the needy; and there are any number of other caring agencies that can be viewed as instruments of "alms" to people whom we will never meet. Church Appeals such as "The Pope’s Pastoral Works Collection" enable us to practice almsgiving toward tsunami victims and earthquake relief on the other side of the world. They are many answers to the Samaritan’s question, "Who is my neighbour?"!
Now, when I’m approached by a "Have you any spare change?" request, I still try to see Jesus in the person. But I trust that he/she is also very present, though less visible, in the charitable appeals that abound these days. And in those charitable appeals I try to hear the Lenten, the Gospel, call to give alms.