Between Justice and Charity

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Charitable Giving. Read other perspectives here.

I feel guilty.

As the end of the year comes and I look at my finances, I realize that I have not given anything close to 10 percent (a biblical tithe) to charitable organizations this year. I usually excuse myself for this because I work in the nonprofit sector serving others and view that as my tithe. However, recently I've come to reconsider my charitable "get out of jail free" card.

Working for a nonprofit I understand the necessity of charitable contributions. My job would not exist if it weren't for the generosity of individuals and organizations that believe in our work. And I know that charitable organizations serve an effective and vital role in communities, so it's not as if I think that my money would be wasted.

It's not even a matter of convincing myself that I don't have enough to give back, which would be an easy excuse to make as a young professional. No, I convinced myself that it was sufficient to dedicate my life to working toward justice, therefore giving to charity was unnecessary.

I try to live St. Augustine's maxim: "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld." That's why I chose the career I have. Recently, however, I've started to consider if the opposite might be true: is justice is no substitute for charity withheld?

Is my work serving as an excuse to neglect basic acts of charitable goodness? Pope Francis seems to think so: "No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas."

Francis points out that people in my field are particularly susceptible to this worldview: "This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles."

"None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor."

I feel guilty, because I have been using my particular vocation to excuse myself from responding to the needs right in front of me. Just because I work to create a nation where no one goes hungry doesn't mean I can ignore the person on the corner asking me to buy them something to eat or the fiscal needs of the food pantry that feeds them every day.

I want to serve the needs of each person and all people. It can't be one or the other or it becomes mere social activism. To paraphrase Mother Teresa: I want to be a minister, not a social worker.

The Church views national budgets as moral documents. We should view our personal budgets in the same way. We often talk about time, talent, and treasure. Just because I give my time and talent by working in a helping career, that doesn't mean I have a get out of jail free card when it comes to sharing my treasure.

If I can make a monthly payment to the gym and the cable company, can I not also make one to a parish or charitable organization?

Luke tells us that to whom much is given, much will be expected. The true joy of Christmas gift giving isn't in our surplus giving, but giving where it really hurts. This Christmas, I want to better imitate the woman who gave her last coin. Perhaps that will better honor the one who comes to give us everything.