A Vincentian View
Imagine a world in which everyone had all that they needed, not too much and never too little. No one was hungry—there was always enough food. No one was naked—adequate clothing was available to all. No one needed shelter—everyone had a home. No one was lonely—everyone had a family or friend to keep them company.
In that world, what would virtue look like? Generosity would have no meaning. There would be no need to share with others since everyone already had enough. Adding to what a person already had would only be wasteful. Charity would have no subject. What can you share with someone who has as much as you? For what purpose? Visiting others would bring no special joy into their lives because they already have adequate family and friends. My effort to be with them would add nothing to their contentment. Sacrifice would have no goal. What would I sacrifice and for whom and for what? No one lacks anything and so no one would benefit from my selflessness. It would be a meaningless gesture. In this new world, equality and self-sufficiency would always describe the status quo.
What kind of a world would this be? Is it the perfection of a Christian community? It seems hard to maintain that position. When there is nothing to draw me outside myself, then I become the center of everything with every need satisfied and every want answered. Really, there is no virtue because there is no one else in my world. Everyone is perfectly situated in his/her own comfortable and unchanging existence.
This reflection leads me back to the Gospel of a week ago. Jesus is in the home of a leading Pharisee and he speaks to his host:
When you hold a lunch or a dinner,
do not invite your friends or your brothers
or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
You see the problem here. It is a zero sum. You invite me for one dinner; I invite you for one dinner. There is no gain or loss. You lend me five dollars; I repay you five dollars. I am not poorer or richer at the conclusion of the transaction. You clean away my dishes today; I clean yours away tomorrow. The table is clean at the end of both days with no extra energy. Like Jesus, I am not trying to say that we should not treat those close to us well, but we need to see a wider world.
As he continues his instruction, Jesus tells his host:
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
The key here, of course, is the inability to repay on the part of these needy persons. That inability enables me to be generous and charitable; it offers me the opportunity to pay a visit and make a sacrifice. Honestly, does it not allow for the possibility of virtue? Isn’t the inability of others to respond to our care in an identical manner a gift? Shouldn’t we be grateful to those who need our stuff and can never respond in kind? We might think that we are a blessing for them, but they are no less—and probably more!—a blessing for us. They direct us to our best selves.
When we pray for the needs of the poor among us, we should also pray in gratitude for their presence. They summon us to selflessness and to a place outside ourselves. There is no “payback,” but, as some might say, a “paying forward.” This is true not only in our wider world but also in our local community.
The world in which we live does not, and probably will never, allow for the equal distribution of goods and opportunities. That will have to wait for the particular circumstances of Heaven. Now, however, some of the gaps which exist among us must be bridged by our willingness and need to be virtuous women and men. Taking care of “our own” is not sufficient; we must also attend to those who—like Lazarus—lie outside our door. Fortunately, these very thoughts and actions are what prove us worthy of God’s Kingdom.