Who’s the one that’s really poor?

Aug 2014    
Poor street kids in Delhi, India, receiving free food. Picture by paul prescott/

What does our pattern of giving say about us? How would our Lord view our relationship with those who are less privileged, as revealed through our giving? If our Lord’s grace was measured to us as ours is to others, what would our situation be?

Few would have missed the Sunday Times headlines a couple of months ago, of how a widowed mother of four used up almost a million dollars that was donated to her after the tragic death of her husband. Pictures of her and her young children stared sullenly out to the readers.

Stories of the widow’s plight are sure to reignite debates over how we as members of a community respond to the plight of the needy, especially when beneficiaries appear to have behaved foolishly and irresponsibly. These words may be inappropriately harsh, given that we may not know all the facts. However, the facts that were reported speak of failed investments, loans made to other needy relatives and a lifestyle that was unsustainable for most families, not to mention one that had no fixed income.

Such accounts illustrate the weaknesses of humans, but also highlight the good. I am struck by the nameless and faceless people who, upon reading about the death of the woman’s husband, dug into their pockets and gave without any expectations of thanks or gain. I also read of the employer of the deceased who went beyond just paying compensation for the family’s loss but arranged for a grief counsellor and a financial consultant to help the widow.

Finally, let us not forget how the widow herself was willing to financially help other needy relatives. Of course, on hindsight, we can say that it was rather short-sighted of her to help others where there was little prospect of them repaying her and when she too was in a financially weak position. But her act of kindness to others in need is not isolated. Many social workers would attest to the fact that some of their needy clients do demonstrate acts of selflessness.

Such acts of compassion stand in contrast to examples of human callousness: when we see able-bodied travellers on the MRT pretending to be asleep, so that they would not be deemed guilty of knowingly withholding their seat from an elderly or a pregnant traveller; or when busy passers-by ignore a person who has fallen and is in obvious pain. We need to consciously remind ourselves that not all of humanity is hardened.

What are we to do when we hear of another plea for help? When we have the proverbial Lazarus sitting at our doorstep pleading for some charity?
Some may look the other way. They may also justify their actions by saying that they do not want to encourage begging and their refusal to give may even lead the person to develop greater self-reliance.

Others may assuage their conscience by remembering that they are part of the automatic deduction scheme; that every month, a dollar of their salary goes to an ethnic-based welfare organisation and that therefore they have done their part. Still others may channel their giving to charities of their choice.

Finally, there are those who donate only when cornered by a persistent volunteer canvasser, otherwise known as a flag-seller.

Once having done so, we make sure we wear the token “flag” prominently lest we are accosted again by another eager volunteer.

What does our pattern of giving say about us? How would our Lord view our relationship with those who are less privileged, as revealed through our giving? If our Lord’s grace was measured to us as ours is to others, what would our situation be?

In reflecting on the Sunday Times story, I try not to judge the actions of the poor widow. I avoid doing so not because I am overflowing with compassion, but because I am aware of my own dire poverty of spirit.

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.


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