Is your generosity spontaneous or strategic? A homily by Fr Stephen Wang
[You can listen to the audio here or read the text below]
So the Year of Mercy has been inaugurated this week by Pope Francis. And in the Scripture readings today, St John the Baptist highlights two virtues that will help us to approach the year with hearts that are open to God and to others.
The first virtue is generosity. Now John is very clever. When the crowds ask him, “What must we do?” you might have expected him to say, “Give everything you own to the poor” – a radical call to generosity. But he doesn’t. Instead he says, “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none”.
I think this is tactical. If I say to you, “Give everything you own to the poor”, you would say, “That’s a beautiful ideal, but I can’t do it. It’s too much. It’s not realistic”. But if I say to you, “Look in your cupboard. Do you have any spare clothes? Is there someone who needs them? Is there a local charity that could use them?” – then this is much more challenging. Because it asks you practical questions about what you have and what you truly need, and whether it is possible for you to share your possessions with those whose need is greater.
It’s true for the clothes in my wardrobe; the food in my kitchen; the money in my wallet; the time in my diary. John the Baptist makes us uncomfortable not because he asks us to give everything, but because he asks us to share. Isn’t it strange that the commandment, “Give half” is sometimes much harder to hear than the commandment, “Give everything”, because we can’t pretend it’s not for us.
I’m not often quoting Peter Singer in my sermons. He is a moral philosopher who holds some very anti-life positions. But listen to this. He writes: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it”. I agree.
If you can do something that will not cost you a great deal, but would make a great difference to someone else, why would you not do it? A few years ago I read about a suggestion for Lent, as a way of giving alms: That we could go through our wardrobes and give away anything we haven’t worn in the last year. We could go beyond clothes: we could go through all our possessions and give away anything that we have not used or touched in the last year. What’s the point in clinging to things that we might, theoretically, need in the distant future, when they could help someone right now, in the present? Of course there are some special reasons to hold on to some special personal possessions, but simply to ask this question challenges us to think about our own possessiveness and the call to be generous.
Generosity can be spontaneous and personal: You may have heard the story of St Martin of Tours, the fourth century French bishop. He is a young soldier, this is before his baptism, riding his horse in the coldest part of winter. He meets a beggar at the gate of the city, and in a moment of inspiration he uses his sword to cut his military cloak in half, and gives half to the beggar. That night, St Martin has a dream. Jesus is wearing the half-cloak that Martin gave away; and he hears Jesus saying to the angels, “Martin, who is still not yet baptised, clothed me with his robe”. What a beautiful symbol of generosity.
Or you might think about generosity in a more strategic way, following the school of “effective altruism”. This is where you look at the evidence about how effective your giving is, in objective ways, in order to prioritise your giving; you use your objective head rather than your subjective heart. It’s connected with the controversial “earning to give” strategy: this is where, instead of choosing an altruistic career (working for a charity, an NGO, a “vocational” profession, etc), you enter a profession that will allow you to earn as much as possible, with the specific intention of giving a fixed percentage of your salary to effective charities – knowing that they than can do far more than you could do through your own personal efforts to help others. I’m not promoting this; I’m not telling you what to do – I’m just provoking you to think.
The second virtue is integrity. John the Baptist didn’t ask the tax collectors and the soldiers to give up their jobs and follow him into the desert. Instead, he said, “Collect no more taxes than you are authorised to do” and “do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations”. In other words: work with integrity. Be truthful, be fair, be honest, be men of peace and not of violence.
This is the great insight of St Josemaria Escriva and Opus Dei, that we are called to sanctify our work: whether this is your career, or your life as a student, or being a parent, or simply the ordinary duties and jobs that you have to do today: you are called to live your Christian values in the workplace, to love those around you, to be a leaven, to bring light and joy to whatever situation you are in. You are called to bring a dedication and professionalism to your work that flows from your desire to serve others and to serve God to the best of your abilities. Isn’t it interesting that two of our most recent saints, Zelie and Louis Martin, the parents of St Therese, both lived in the world and tried to balance work and family life. Zelie made fine Alencon lace; and Louis was a watchmaker. Both ran their own successful businesses.
It’s not always easy. When I was teaching at the seminary, before coming to Newman House, I was chaplain to a group of young people that met every month for some discussion about faith and how to live one’s faith in the world. We often talked about the difficulties of working with integrity. Is it always possible?
Say you are in business and your boss is pressuring you to cut corners or lie to your customers; you are a lawyer or accountant and your firm is giving advice not just about tax avoidance but also about tax evasion, and no-one seems to mind; you are in healthcare and it becomes almost impossible for you to follow your conscience and avoid cooperating in anti-life policies. My advice was very simple: Do everything you can to do your work with integrity. Live the values you believe in, in a quiet unobtrusive way; and if it becomes necessary, then speak about them and defend them. Of course there are grey areas, and we won’t always be certain about the choices we make; as long as we are trying to make the right choices.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by these demands, and you can imagine the crowds around John the Baptist feeling both excited by the challenge and frightened about whether they can live it. That’s why John turns towards Christ. He’s not just a moralist, he is a prophet pointing towards the Lord. He says: We can’t do this on our own. Someone is coming who is more powerful than me. He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will sort the wheat from the chaff. He is the mighty warrior spoken about by the prophet Zephaniah, who drives your enemies away and dances with shouts of joy as on a day of festival. We rejoice, with St Paul, not because we have become the people we are meant to be, but because the Lord is near, and because he has promised that he will help us to become the people we are meant to be. Generosity, integrity – these are huge demands, far too much for ordinary people like ourselves. But with Christ at our side, we can do anything. As St Paul says: “Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine”.