“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Although this Bible verse is recycled and reused many times when trying to illustrate the need for compassionate action among the “least” of society (e.g. the poor, impoverished, homeless, etc.), it is very rich and an essential element to the Christian Tradition. These famous words uttered by our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew constantly remind us that being charitable and loving to EVERYONE is a non-negotiable aspect of our faith, and rightly so, for we are called to see Christ in every single person, putting all prejudices and hesitations aside.
Being exposed to so many people who may be poor or downtrodden is truly a blessing, because it gives us an opportunity to be generous with our gifts and talents. By giving of our time (serving in a soup kitchen or passing out food on the streets), our talent (engaging someone in friendly conversation who looks “down and out”), and our treasure (giving alms to the poor responsibly), we “build the Kingdom” and empower our brothers and sisters to participate in God’s great plan for salvation. There have always been poor people in every society, even since the beginning of time, for early hunters and gatherers had a simple means of living. God does not want us to ignore the poor or view them as insignificant burdens, but He encourages us to recognize His image and likeness within them.
This can be difficult sometimes, as certain individuals try to manipulate the generosity of others and misuse that generosity by worsening their personal conditions. For example, if one walks down Meridian Street at night, it is difficult to avoid seeing individuals with signs stating “Why Lie? It’s for Beer!” or other clever sayings to humor pedestrians into giving some spare change. Although God expects us to share our blessings, we should always exercise prudent discretion when helping others and certainly keep those certain individuals in prayer who appear to be acting in an inappropriate or insincere manner. We are also called to forgive those who may take advantage of others’ generosity and pray that they have a change of heart. A prayer can change someone’s life more so than any monetary amount, especially if one needs to encounter Christ in order to experience His love and mercy.
Serving the poor in the capacity that Christ wants us to does not involve some extravagant gift or extended use of our time. Rather, it involves us recognizing the dignity of each person and their participation in God’s great plan and sharing our gifts in a responsible manner. We will never fully know how a small act of generosity, a kind word, or quiet prayer can help lift someone out of the wreckage and give them hope for a better tomorrow. We must trust and believe that any act of charity does not go unnoticed by God, for St. Paul tells us that “each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
To illustrate this point, I want to recall an event that took place last summer. St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church hosted a cookout for the less fortunate in July 2011 as a means of promoting fellowship and assessing the needs of the local homeless community. While attending to our guests in the courtyard, a man named Peter approached me and asked if I could help him get a bus pass to Colorado. At first I was hesitant, seeing as how a bus ticket halfway across the country would not be cheap. But I felt a desire to help this man because he seemed sincere, and I knew it was divinely inspired because the apostle Peter was the brother of the apostle Andrew. After purchasing his bus ticket at the Greyhound station down the street, Peter gave me a big hug and told me that he was very grateful for my generosity. His unsolicited act of gratitude really touched my heart and the made the act of generosity worthwhile.
About three weeks later, my coworkers and I received a prestigious award for outstanding customer service. To my surprise, I received a monetary bonus because of the award, and the amount of the bonus was very close to, if not more than, what I had spent on Peter’s bus ticket. God had “reimbursed” me for looking out for one of my brothers. It made me realize that when we look out for our brothers and sisters, God notices and surprises us with many blessings, sometimes more than what we deserve.
Having a preference for the poor is vital to being a good citizen and a good Christian. As Mother Teresa once said, “at the end of life, we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless and you took me in.’ Hungry not for bread, but for love. Naked not only for clothing, but naked of human dignity and respect. Homeless not only for want of a room of bricks, but homeless because of rejection.” (Bishop Thomas Doran, At the Crossroads: A Vision of Hope).
Serving the poor is perhaps one of the most gratifying things that one can do in his or her lifetime. Whether offering some spare change, buying a sandwich, or by exchanging pleasantries, acknowledging that another person exists is a great means of respect and compassion. It is by serving others that we exhibit Christ’s love in a very real and palpable manner, potentially saving souls and building the Kingdom in the process.
Andrew Costello, better known as “Coz,” is a passionate young adult Catholic here in Indy. He has started Operation Leftover, which offers an opportunity to meet and socialize with the homeless and impoverished in Indianapolis. Once a month, Operation Leftover gathers food, secondhand clothing, and other toiletries to distribute to those in need in the downtown Indianapolis area.