“Hello! I’m calling on behalf of the Big Charity Appeal of the week – do you have five minutes?”
Giving to Charity has been in the news recently, and for all the wrong reasons. Details of generous givers are passed from charity to charity, and those who are most generous are bombarded with appeals to give – most notoriously, in the recent tragic case of Olive Cooke.
We can try to opt-out of receiving unwanted mail or phone calls, but sooner or later we will be confronted by yet another request for charity – someone shaking a bucket at a supermarket door, an appeal to “spare any change” on the street, and even when you come to church, you know that once or twice a month, there will be yet another appeal for a retiring collection!
It’s easy for us to feel pressured by our own guilt. A charity has sent us a free pen or coaster? We ought to give in return. The people either side of me in church are watching – how much should I put in the bag?
Today, I’d like to share with you a simple antidote to guilt. It’s called planning. The most likely reason for us to feel guilty about an appeal to give, is that we haven’t planned how much we intend to give this year, and set an honest limit. I’m not talking specifically about what we give to church, but all our giving – to family members who don’t live in our household, to charities we choose to support, and to colleagues or strangers who approach us to ask for help. We are called to practise not charity, but generosity.
There’s one key verse in the Bible we should keep in mind – it’s II Corinthians 9:7.
Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
We are called to give generously and cheerfully, not out of a sense of guilt or obligation. So in these next few weeks, we might look at the coming year 2016 and make a deliberate plan of what we will give. We might choose to give to certain charities and no more. That way, when we receive an awkward phone call or meet someone on the supermarket steps, we can say, with no guilt, “I’m sorry, I’ve already decided which charities I am going to support this year. When I re-pick for next year, I will keep your cause in mind.” Or as part of our planning we might keep back a percentage for “contingency giving”, for the colleague at work or the needy person on the street; and once that amount is gone, it’s gone.
But if we are planning how much of our income to give, how much should that be? Here are some suggestions.
100%. That’s what we see in today’s Gospel, and Our Lord speaks warmly of what the woman has done. We aren’t told how God provides for her in return for her generosity, but we know God has seen her good deed and implicitly, she won’t lose out. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal operate a policy where at the end of each year they give away any remaining funds and start on January 1st with zero assets. God provides!
95%. Give away almost everything and keep just the bare minimum. This is what Oskar Schindler did, liquidating his fortunate to buy the freedom of Polish Jews. When it was time for him to make his own escape, the film Schindler’s List portrays him lamenting that he could have sold just a little more to save three or four more lives. St Katherine Drexel, an American heiress, gave away most of her fortune in founding her own religious order.
50%. An equal share for yourself and the person in need. St Martin of Tours cut his cloak in half to warm a beggar. Blessed Mother Teresa told a story of taking rice to a starving family. The mother receiving it promptly poured half into a bowl and took it next door to their equally famished neighbours. The widow in today’s First Reading had an extra mouth to feed, so Elijah’s fair percentage was 33⅓.
10%. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people were clearly instructed to set aside 10% of their income to give to the Temple – this was called a tithe. Compared to the stories we’ve just we’ve just heard, from the Bible and from the saints, suddenly 10% sounds quite manageable!
These decisions are the kind which all the adults in a household need to make together. Once you have decided on your percentage, then you can share this between the different good causes you can support. You might keep in mind how many other people will support the same cause. Your elderly parents? Only your brothers and sisters. This parish? No-one except parishioners. Next week’s diocesan appeal for retired clergy? No-one except other Catholics in South-East Wales and Herefordshire. Big national charities? The whole population of the UK!
There’s no need to feel guilty because we can’t support every single good cause which comes our way. It’s even OK not to support every retiring collection we hold in church. These days, we need to remember that a person who puts nothing in a collection bag may already have a direct debit set up. What’s not OK is for us as Christians to refuse to be generous. The measure we give to others will be the measure God returns to us.
I’d like to leave you with the story of two friends walking along a beach. The tide has washed up a number of starfish, slowly drying out and dying on the shoreline. Every so often, the first friend reaches down, picks up one of the starfish, and casts it into the sea. They walk on in silence for a long time, and eventually the second exclaims: “Why do you bother? There are so many starfish and you can only throw back a few. Do you think you’re really making a difference?”
The first friend made no response, but simply reached down and picked up the next starfish, smiled, and threw it into the surf with a satisfying plop. “I reckon it made a difference to that one!”