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What are we really giving?

Rev Bruce Johnson
NO ONE likes to receive charity. Well, maybe not ‘no one’.

I remember a man who wanted charity just after I arrived in Clermont as a new minister.

There was a knock on the front door and before me stood a man who said he wanted some money.

He told me a sorry tale about needing to go to Rockhampton and that he would like some money to buy some sandwiches at Nebo on the way.

While I was new to Central Queensland, I knew enough to realise that one doesn’t go through Nebo to get to Rockhampton.

I offered to make him some sandwiches, but he insisted that he didn’t want to be a bother. If I could give him $5, he would be on his way. I knew I was being conned and I felt naive and a little embarrassed. But I knew if I gave him $5, he would go away, so I handed him the money. It was easy. It didn’t cost me much. And it got rid of this annoying con man.

I went out my back door to sit outside and watched this man go into the pub across the road. He didn’t mind charity, but I had not helped this man in any real way.

We call such detached giving ‘charity’, yet it was not always that way.

In the Authorised King James Version of the Bible, we used to read: “Though I speak with the tongues of men or of angels but have not charity, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor 13:1)

Charity was a great word.

It was used to translate that wonderful Greek word ‘agape’. It carried with it the sense of a loving and generous self-giving. Charity was the basis for creating community, belonging, and transformation.

But somewhere along the way charity became synonymous with giving a handout with a level of indifference that made the recipient feel insignificant and inferior.

When I was travelling in Europe, there seemed to be a ‘begging etiquette’. This meant beggars would kneel with their heads bowed or even covered and simply hold out their hands, hoping for charity. In this way, the beggar was a faceless non-person who could hide their shame.

Charity has become something that made the giver feel good and the recipient feel worthless, much like my action years ago in Clermont.

Charity as conveyed by the word ‘agape’ is a response of deep compassion where the giver is concerned about the recipient’s well-being, rather than relieving their own conscience.

The recent outpouring of generosity towards those impacted by the fires and floods demonstrated that self-giving love still beats in the hearts of Australians.

It would be wonderful if all our expressions of charity were motivated by that desire to lift people up and show our respect and willingness to create a caring, inclusive community.

Several years into my stay in Clermont, my friend returned with the same story and the same request for $5 for sandwiches.

I reminded him of his previous visit and the fact that I saw him take my $5 to the pub across the road. I told him I didn’t mind him having a drink on me, but I didn’t appreciate being treated as a fool.

Since we were about to have a barbecue with some friends and family, I invited him to stay for a feed and I might even have something to drink.

But I discovered he didn’t want to be treated as a friend — he just wanted charity.

Photo : Rev Bruce Johnson