Can charity be earned?

There is a thought that rings true in our quest to feed the hungry and clothe the naked – those who would receive assistance must do work to earn it. It makes sense when you consider that Jesus was a carpenter first and the book of Thessalonians even says something like the one who does not work does not eat. It’s at the heart of American idealism that the goal of what we do and go after is to contribute to the betterment of society and be good workers for the sake of the economy. But the notion that someone has to work to receive something is the antithesis to the Christian notion of grace.

In truth, it’s not really that we generically think someone ought to work to receive help – what we specifically mean is that they owe us something in an unspoken system of barter if they want anything from us. It’s hard work to beg for money. I’ve met some beggars who’ve done a better sales job on me than any other person in the mainstream corporate world. If we really just meant that people have to work to deserve charity, we would have to accept that some of the most deserving and hardest workers are the people we least desire to fund. What we wind up wanting is not “work” to express a desire for help, but a positive contribution to someone else. There is, of course, no “Christian” definition of positive contribution to which we turn, we just want to think they’re earning their keep.

Christian charity works in the opposite direction. Take the story of harvest gleanings from Ruth. I’d argue that the type of work the people do there to receive the leftover food is more like the ‘work’ we want eliminated than the work we think people should be willing to do – they simply come and get what they need and leave without contributing anything positive to the owners of the fields.

The very heart and soul of Jesus’ message is that what he offers we haven’t earned. When we include earning anywhere within the notion of giving, we’re already permanently off the track God desires us to follow. It’s not that we should give freely to anyone and everyone with no thought as to how or why – but that there are better and worse ways to share from the abundance we have been given. There are more and less effective ways to witness to the kingdom God is building rather than the economy upon which America runs. There are things we can to do let people into our hearts and find God waiting there rather than earn their way into our wallets and find the next quick fix. Charity is about building a kingdom – not earning a paycheck or creating walls between the haves and have nots.

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