“Share your bread with the hungry … shelter the oppressed and the homeless … clothe the naked … do not turn your back on your own … lavishly he gives to the poor.” If I were to ask how we could describe all of these injunctions in one word, I suspect that most of us would choose the word, “charity.”
Charity is love, the self-sacrificing love one has for another with reference to the love God has for us – to love one another as God has loved us. But, interestingly enough, the virtue of charity is not actually how the Church, following the example of the Bible, has traditionally thought about these actions. Charity is about going above and beyond, doing more than what is necessary. This, after all, is what Christ did when He died on the Cross for us. He went far beyond what was necessary, what was just, what we deserved, in saving us despite our sinfulness. And that is why what He did was so great – because we did not deserve it.
Sharing our bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked, and so forth, on the other hand, are not really charity, but rather a matter of justice. Look at how Holy Mother Church has disposed the readings for this Sunday. After the passage from the prophet Isaiah exhorting us to these good deeds, we heard Psalm 112: “The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.” Not the charitable man, but the just man.
Our generosity to those in need is not simply a matter of giving of our excess – this is charity, the superabundant generosity that gives even more than we are required – rather, it is a necessary part of being just, of doing what is right. It is when we are just that the words of our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew are fulfilled – “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
In the ancient world, the world of the Bible, giving your bread to the hungry or sheltering the oppressed and the homeless meant an up-close and personal encounter with the poor. Even today, in most of the world, including a large part of the developed world, the rich and the poor often still live side-by-side. However, in our country, we have evolved a system of separation. Suburban sprawl has made it possible for us to live in a well-off part of town where we do not see those who suffer on a regular basis. When we do not see the sufferings of others, we tend to forget about them.
Even the way that we do exercise the virtue of justice with regards to those in need, often takes place in a way that isolates them from our own experience. When the prophet Isaiah tells the Israelites to shelter the oppressed and the homeless, he does not mean, and they would not have taken him to mean, that they should build a homeless shelter in an undesirable part of town. He means that they should take the oppressed and the homeless into their very own homes. When he says that they should share their bread with the hungry, he means it literally, not just figuratively – they should go and take the bread that they have baked to those who do not have food, not just write a check to the local food bank.
Obviously, we cannot go back in time to the way things used to be, and none of us individually has the power to change the way that our contemporary society is structured. However, each of us has the power to make a small difference. Each of us has the power to go in search of those who need the light of Christ’s love and to share it with them. For each of us it will be something different – maybe serving as a mentor for at-risk youth, maybe volunteering with an organization that serves the poor, maybe starting a new initiative to encounter the needy. The suburban isolation into which most of our country has become organized is not the fault of any individual, but we do have the choice as to whether we will be complicit with, or whether we will resist that tendency towards isolation.
Our Lord says today that we are the salt of the world. We all know what food without salt tastes like – it is bland, it lacks flavor. Even the most expensive roast of meat, the primest cut of steak, would not taste very good if it were not salted. So likewise, a life lived in isolation lacks flavor. The most prestigious suburb, the nicest house, the most luxurious car, all of these are a life without savor if they are not seasoned by the salt of the Gospel. But, truly, every life can be sanctified by the virtue of justice, by sharing our bread with the hungry, by sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, by clothing the naked when you see them.
“When you see them.” The Lord wants us to go out in search of those who are in need, He wants us to encounter those who are less fortunate. If we are isolated, we cannot be the light of the world that He desires us to be. But, “if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday” (Is 58).