In last Sunday’s Gospel, St. Luke presented his readers with down to earth examples of practical charity. Through the words of St. John the Baptist, the evangelist provided a program of care and compassion.
The precursor instructed the crowds to share their own clothing with the poor. Those who had two cloaks should donate one. St. Martin of Tours would take this advice literally when he offered the clothing on his back to a street person.
The fathers of the Church would convey the same message when they advised that the extra clothing hanging in one’s closet belonged to the poor. The Baptist had advice too for the tax collectors and the soldiers — probably segments of the population to whom the religious authorities rarely preached. He told the tax men to be honest and the military figures to be gentle. What advice could be more practical and sensible!
The preaching of the Baptist anticipated the great litany of corporal works of mercy that St. Matthew would record in his famous Chapter 25. St. Matthew would cite the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned as marginal members of the ancient world community to whose needs the sincere Christian should respond. But St. Luke does not have to borrow from his fellow evangelist to make his point about matter-of-fact assistance to the needy. St. Luke uniquely preserved for Christian posterity the famous and touching parable of the Good Samaritan, a name which has become synonymous with hands-on aid to the distressed. That kindly traveler along the Jericho road involves himself with his abused neighbor sensibly by dressing his wounds, physically by lifting the man onto his own mount, financially by offering his own money as a pledge, and even impartially by overcoming the enduring prejudice between Samaritans and Jews.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, St. Luke graciously presents the Christian world with another unique example of compassionate neighborliness in the visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary from Nazareth to her senior cousin Elizabeth in Judea. Mary of Nazareth was expecting the Child Jesus, the reader should recall, and yet she journeyed about 90 miles from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south. The chances are very likely that Mary walked most of this way (and back), although securing a ride with a traveling caravan was not out of the question. Either way, her adventure was arduous and her kindness memorable.
Later Scripture scholars would see more than an act of charity in Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Indeed, the best of the Old Covenant and the best of the New Covenant met when these two women embraced. Mary, as the Church would do later, brought the saving presence of Jesus Christ into the lives of a mother and her unborn child, heralding the gift of universal salvation God would offer the world through Christ. While the theological implications of this visit are many, Mary’s charitable precedent is obvious. Authentic faith is written in words of no-nonsense service.
Pope Benedict XVI in his first encyclical, “God Is Love,” traces the history of practical charity in the Church. The sharing of resources by the Jerusalem Church, the implementation of the order of deacons to assist widows, Sunday offerings at Mass cited by St. Justin Martyr (ad 155) to enable bishops to assist the poor, the famous incident of St. Lawrence selling the Church treasures to aid the needy, and so on. The pope cites the tension in more recent Church history between those who would concentrate on systemic change within society (justice) and those who continue to minister daily to the downtrodden (charity).
Pope Benedict understands justice to be largely the task of the state, although faith can enlighten the path to justice. But the pontiff goes on to make a touching and compelling argument for the role of the traditional charity in society: he calls for “loving personal concern.” The pope writes pointedly and powerfully, “… the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone.’” The Holy Father accordingly writes without apology, “… Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations…(it is) heartfelt concern.” The pope is not against training, organization and expertise. But bureaucracy is not charity. Rather charity is active and productive sympathy; what the pope calls “humanity.” He makes this very clear.