Expanding Our Definition of Charity

I came across another great quotation for Lent from Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables:

[Monsieur Madeleine] had entire confidence in this overseer, a very respectable person, firm, just, upright, full of that charity which consists in giving, but not having to the same extent that charity which consists in understanding and pardoning.

Let that one sink in. How often are we willing to give to a cause to help people we see as less fortunate as us, but we are at the same time unwilling to understand the lives of those very people and forgive those behaviors we find distasteful?

Do we give money and gifts in kind to a homeless shelter and yet shake our heads with disgust at the homeless man or woman asking for money at the intersection? Will we write checks to organizations fighting human trafficking and still angrily judge the prostitute?

We are invited to expand our definition of charity beyond merely giving money or material goods (necessary actions, to be sure). Charity can also consist of understanding and pardoning others. True charity requires all these aspects. A charity without understanding and pardon is a patriarchal, drive-by kind of caring. A charity with understanding and pardon is the beginning of solidarity. Expressing this type of charity is when we become more like Christ, who does not keep us at arm’s length, but who knows us and our situations intimately. His real charity in understanding our lives allows him to pardon us and give us what truly helps.

During Lent, may we ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to broaden our definition of charity. May the Holy Spirit give us the courage to express the charity of understanding and pardon.

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The Gospel Gives Us a Strange and Peculiar Perspective

After decades of loving the musical, Les Miserables, I am finally reading Victor Hugo’s novel. I found this passage describing Bishop Myriel especially inviting. (He is the bishop who later forgives Jean Valjean and sets him on a path of compassion):

He was indulgent towards women, and towards the poor, upon whom the weight of society falls most heavily; and said: “The faults of women, children, and servants, of the feeble, the indigent and the ignorant, are the faults of their husbands, fathers, and masters, of the strong, the rich, and the wise.” At other times, he said, “Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”

As we see, he had a strange and peculiar way of judging things. I suspect that he acquired it from the Gospel.

I want to emphasize Hugo’s summation of Myriel’s outlook. What a wonderful and haunting thought. May our encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ change us in such a way that the world around us would consider our way of judging things, “strange and peculiar.” Gaining respectability and social power are temptations we always face, but we have to admit there are simply some things about the gospel that will never make sense in our world.

For example, the Christian practices of forgiving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and radical generosity and hospitality are all peculiar and nearly unintelligible in our world. Forgiveness seems unwise or even dangerous in our culture that keeps long accounts. Turning the other cheek makes no sense. Retaliation in the form of a punch, social snub, lawsuit, or drone strike, is seen as far more reasonable. Giving of one’s money, time, and abilities for the sake of others on occasion is admired in our culture. But to make a habit of it at the expense of one’s career advancement or lifestyle is foolish.

During Lent, we take an inventory of our lives. We peer into our darkness and seek to repent of sinning against God and others “by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” We seek the grace of God to change how we think and act. These are peculiar acts for they are intentional practices to align ourselves with God’s mission in the world, and not a part of a self-improvement program. The great fast of Lent reveals our disordered desires and willingness to place our trust in that which cannot save us. We are once again invited to a deeper conversion to God’s kingdom. The strange gospel of Jesus Christ takes our focus off ourselves and puts it onto God and our neighbors.

Bishop Myriel says later in the novel:

Have no fear of robbers and murderers. Such dangers are without, and are but petty. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. What matters it what threatens our heads and our purses? Let us think only of what threatens our souls.

This is a fantastic exhortation for us during this holy season. In the remaining weeks of Lent, have the courage to confront what threatens your soul. And may God bless you with an encounter with the gospel—that inviting, challenging, comforting, perplexing, strange, and peculiar good news.