Give your money away
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, April 7, 2020
It seems every single news article, email and political missive in the past month or so begins, “in these uncertain times …” And uncertain times they are. Amidst all of this uncertainty, we — as anxious dependent rational animals — can tend to hoard, stockpile and prepare for the absolute worst. We all may find ourselves filling our shopping carts with toilet paper, packing our freezers with bagel bites and crouching over our bank accounts, wondering whether our lives will be the same in a month, two months, six months or a year.
The thing about uncertain times, of course, is that they are remarkably uncertain. If your bank account still has a comfortable cushion — and keep in mind, I am not speaking to those who struggle to put food on the table or who live paycheck to paycheck — you don’t know if you will need that money in a year. Let me repeat myself. You don’t know that you will need that money in a year.
In these uncertain times, one thing which is absolutely certain is that food banks are experiencing unprecedented shortages as more than 6.6 million people filed for unemployment in America last week. It is absolutely certain that people throughout our country, and particularly in hot spots such as New York and New Orleans, are facing unprecedented insecurity; they will not be able to make rent, pay their utility bills or even buy groceries. Some of these people are your literal neighbors, living a street over from you. Some of these people may be reading this right now.
Others may live in the same town as these people. Others may work with them. They may be your friends, family or the stranger you avoid by a distance of six feet in the street. Those who are facing this unprecedented insecurity are also facing loss, anxiety, grief and pain, the same as the rest of us.
They may contract the virus because they are considered essential workers, and they deliver your food or your mail. They may contract the virus because while they aren’t considered essential workers, they file in line to go to the food bank. They may have thousands of dollars of medical bills. They may be elderly, middle-aged or young and recently graduated. There are millions of them, from all walks of life and all situations. It is absolutely certain that they need help, and immediately. It is uncertain from whence this help will come.
In these uncertain times, another thing which is absolutely certain is that we all have been coming face to face with our own mortality. This is going to be grim for a moment, so bear with me. What is absolutely certain is that each and every one us will die.
It is not certain when we will die; it is not certain that we will die from the virus, even if we find ourselves in a high risk group. It is also not certain that we will live to old age and die peacefully with our friends and family. What is certain is that we will die.
When Christ proclaimed his kingdom, one of his parables laid out explicitly the parameters for entry into heaven. Jesus, speaking as God at the time of final judgement, says to those on his right: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
The righteous then answer him and ask because they did not understand of what he spoke, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
Jesus will respond to them at the end of the age and say, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
We have all heard these words a thousand times. They sound quite nice; and I believe we all believe them, to some extent. Of course, those who are righteous are those who have done material good. Of course, those who are righteous care for the poor. It makes sense.
But reader, my challenge for you now is to look over your own life, and consider whether you have fed the hungry. Consider the last time you gave a thirsty person something to drink. Or when was the last time you invited a stranger into your home? Or, and pardon my bluntness in asking, when was the last time you saw someone shivering from the cold and gave them your coat? To keep reiterating the point, how have you cared for the sick? Lastly, when was the last time you actually visited a prison?
If it is true, like Jesus says it is, that on our deathbeds we will stand before the throne of judgement and make an account for our lives on the extent to which we did or did not fulfill these commandments, then how will you fare? Are you satisfied? If you died tomorrow, with the amount of money you still have in your bank account, knowing that perhaps hundreds or thousands of other people could have gone another day without starving if you had gone online and clicked three buttons, with little to no change to your current livelihood, would you be happy to tell God how you had lived?
Some of us do not find ourselves in a position of privilege; some of us are those uncertain, those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who cannot make rent. But if you are not a member of that number, I exhort you now to consider how simple and easy it would be for you to improve the life of even one person who is now living a much more uncertain life than you are.
I don’t mean, of course, that every person who has an ounce of money right now will burn in hell if they don’t give it away. What I do mean is that in the framework of our lives and deaths, some things are certain and others are not. The certain things are death, our encounter with God, our responsibility to others, the requirement to love. The uncertain things are the date of our judgement, the plans we make, the stock market, the jobs we have now or will have in the future.
Christ explicitly warns us in another parable, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.”
If you find yourself in a situation where the only purpose your extra money is serving is a cushion, or a holdout until the end of the crisis, and it is not helping to provide for your family, consider that worldly possessions are not only for our own use. What is your money doing sitting in your bank account, when your own future is uncertain but the suffering of others is certain?
As St. Basil the Great, a Church Father from the fourth century said: “To the hungry belongs the bread that you keep. To the naked belongs the clothing that you store in your closet. To the barefoot belongs the footwear that rots in your house. To the needy belongs the cash that you hide away. In short, you could have provided assistance to all those whom you treated unjustly.”
That is, if it is not serving your use, there are others who need it right now, immediately. The nature of this pandemic is such that there are millions more whose lives are suddenly uncertain. If you find that your life is stable, or if you did not lose your job, you cannot only count yourself as lucky and leave it at that.
Instead, consider that it could have been you who found yourself without a job; it could have been you, had the dice rolled differently, who found yourself lined up at a food bank; it could have been you, struggling to make rent. If you found yourself in those 6.6 millions’ shoes, what would you want someone to do for you? And when your children look back on this time of hardship, how do you want them to remember your actions? Will your children learn more from parents who stored more than enough to reside in comfort, or from parents who were generous and free-handed with the gifts that God had given them?
Another Church Father, St. Cyril of Alexandria, states, “This earthly wealth … is something lowly, even minimal and of no value, since it so easily slips away, and let us not usurp for ourselves what has been given to us for our brothers and sisters, who have the same needs as we do, so that we do not make wealth to be something unjust by holding on to what belongs to another. It does not belong to us, first of all, because we have brought nothing with us into this world, and secondly, because it truly belongs to the poor.”
Cyril’s statement here echoes a truism many of us have heard: “You can’t take it with you.”
In these uncertain times, there is nothing more certain than this: You can’t take it with you.
But others need it now. They don’t need your time; you are stuck inside and can’t volunteer. They, as always, need your prayers. But what they need most of all is money. We have all seen celebrities giving large sums away; we don’t all have billions, but we can, like the woman who gave two coins at the temple treasury, give what we have. There are literally millions of individuals and organizations who directly, immediately and literally need the surplus which rests in our bank accounts, stored up for some uncertain future date.
Give money to your local food bank, or a food bank in a hot spot. They need cash just as much as your non-perishables.
Give money directly to someone you know who needs it.
Give money to your local hospital, or a hospital in a hot spot.
Give money to local bookstores, restaurants and small businesses.
In these uncertain times, people are dying and suffering in previously unprecedented magnitudes. We have all had to consider and reconsider what we believe to be certain, and what we have discovered is uncertain after all. If you find yourself one of the luckier ones in the pandemic which might, at any time, come for any of us: I am begging you, for the sake of your soul as well for the lives of countless others, give your money away.
We do not know what tomorrow brings. But we do know what we owe to each other. We are required, by any standard of ethics and particularly by the Christianity many of us hold dear at this University, to alleviate suffering, to prevent death when possible, to live as though the meaning of our lives is love and not self-preservation, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned.
Consider the trust it will require to acknowledge to yourself that you do not own your future; you cannot control what may happen. Consider the grace and the stretching of your heart that will occur when you let go of the hold on your life that declares that you are the lord and master of your fate. Consider the lives you can save. Consider the suffering of millions of people right now who don’t know from where their next meal will come. Consider your own eventual death, and the moment you will face your creator.
Give your money away.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.