In today’s gospel, Jesus fed the five thousand. The story is set up with the quote, “When Jesus saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them …” They had no food and they were apparently off the beaten path enough that practicality dictated that they be sent away to buy food in distant villages and towns. Jesus didn’t want them to have to do that, so he performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the five thousand were fed.
Many today equate such actions with the actions of government on behalf of those who are hungry (or ill- clothed or housed). But these actions are truly different from one another, both for the giver and the receiver. And they are also different in their respective effects.
When the government creates such a program, its creators feel that there is a need in the community for some help, but not enough of a need to try to help meet it with their own money or time, or goods. Nor do they feel it is worthy of their leadership to call on many givers to meet the need. Rather they take other people’s money to fund the need. This is not compassion, it is passing the buck. The new law entitles its beneficiaries to certain, specified values, whether those values are goods, like healthcare and housing, or cash, like food stamps and welfare. The ultimate dispensors of the benefits are not allowed to make judgements as to who should receive the benefits. Instead they try to ascertain who is eligible under the rules of the program. The ultimate recipients feel that they are owed the benefits, because they are entitled under the program. All the actors in this drama are cold, playing their parts without any need for compassion on the one hand, or gratitude on the other. The law says thus and so, and therefore it is done.
Now consider what happens when you give to a charity that pursues these same ends. The need pulls on your heartstrings. The charity has organized itself to meet the need. The charity workers are generally not paid well, or at all. They serve because they have com-passion (meaning: to suffer with) for those in need. The recipients are aware of all this and are usually both grateful for the help, and resolved not to continue to be as dependent in the future, if they can help it. Many will also resolve to give to this charity when they are able to. All the actors in this drama are motivated by or demonstrate love.
Which of these systems do you think will be better for society? Which will be more successful at meeting the need?
Did Jesus ever point out the obligation of the Roman or Herodian government to take care of the poor? He did not. Instead he moved to serve the poor, and others, directly, out of love. When we write a check to a charity, love is inspiring us. When we serve in a charity, or help another person directly, love is moving us. When we receive from another or from a charity, we give love back.