Thursday, January 10, 2008

And There Came a Certain Poor Widow...

Mark 12:42 ...and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.

43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:

44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

My second post on this blog is my favorite. In it, I ask the question, "Who is my neighbor?" I believe that question is much more nuanced than many believe. Who do we serve? Why am I so concerned with my friend who is in trouble, but not as concerned about the millions that suffer throughout the world? That question remains on my mind, but today I turn my attention to a different but related question:

As for how much to serve, how much is too little and how much is too much? By service, I'm talking about all forms--giving of time, effort, and resources for the benefit of those in need. To answer this question I'll start by examining the extreme viewpoints.

One defendable philosophy is that we should be fully engaged in service as long as there are people less fortunate than ourselves. Such a philosophy is grounded in complete self-denial. How can I justify have any luxury while there are people who are hungry and sick? How can I justify eating when there are people who are starving to death? Such a person would indeed succeed at reducing the number of those less fortunate to zero, but not because he helped any one person very much, but because in his Herculean effort to lift others, he reduced himself to the least fortunate person on earth.

Most of us would consider such a person to be foolish, although well-intended and maybe even admirable. But what about the widow who gave everything she had? Imagine you are a bishop who knows an old widow in your ward. She has barely enough to pay her rent and buy the basic essentials. One Sunday she hands you her fast offering and you discover that it is a great deal of money for someone so poor. You are confident it must be her entire savings. What would you do? I don't know what I would do, but I would seriously consider paying her a visit and urging her to take it back.

One the other hand, imagine the child of the person I described before. Resentful of growing up with nothing because of his parent's complete selflessness, he decides that everything he earns is his own. Giving to others denies the law of justice, which says that we reap what we sow. Most of us would consider this person selfish and unchristian, but it is this philosophy that is at the heart of capitalism, which most of us support.

Of course, the correct way is somewhere in between these two extremes. But where is the line? How do we know if we're being too selfish, or giving too much? I don't have the answer, but here are a few thoughts:

We should give all we can, but should provide for ourselves and the needs of our families first. This is supported by Mosiah 4:24. This seems like a reasonable approach, except that it is not always clear what is a legitimate need. Do I need to own a car? Well, if I want to get to work I probably do. But I could have just moved closer to work so that I could walk, and probably get a cheaper house too. So the line is still vague.

So I'm back to the old stand-by: follow the Spirit (I know you were thinking that the whole time, right?). There is no cookie-cutter answer. We should give as much as we feel we can, and pray to have the guidance to know how to balance our needs with our charity. Great, problem solved. But, that answer, although the most reasonable, is not very settling to me...

Would the Spirit approve of the things I bought last year: a new patio set, a swing set, a laptop computer? Does the gospel allow for luxury? Surely I'm not alone in considering this question, as I know many members who live in relative luxury, but who I still consider good Christians (and I'm sure they give a lot as well). How do we reconcile this? Are we fooling ourselves?

No comments: