Clearing the Heart to See the Truth

Wasting Money on the Poor; Wasting Time on the Dysfunctional

timemoneyLast spring I went to a lecture by Peter Brown, an expert on “Late Antiquity” (a time period centered around the early centuries of Christianity). The lecture dealt with the massive cultural and economic changes which occurred in the Roman empire due to the distinctively Christian way of conceiving the poor. Here’s more or less how Professor Brown put it:

In pagan Rome, it was seen as socially irresponsible to give your money to the poor. Why? Well because it wouldn’t do any good. You’d give to the poor, they’d spend it, and then they’d be right back where they started from. So you’d be blowing your money on something with no long-term benefits. If you want to help society, do something that would improve the social infrastructure – don’t waste it on hopeless individuals.

But then Jesus came along and told his followers that if you give your money to the poor, you’ll be “laying up treasure in Heaven.” Now once this idea took off, the poor became hugely important, since, after all, Christ had basically said that they were the currency exchange people for the next life. The poor were the folks who could change your Earth-bucks into Heaven-bucks, so it was a very savvy financial move to give them your money. Which is why, according to Brown, the poor became such a major factor in the economics of Christendom. Because in the Christian system it is wise to waste your money on the poor.

So I thought that was interesting.

Then this fall I got to go to a lecture by Leon Kass, who’s a sort of public intellectual figure. His presentation was on the “new poverty” in America – a poverty not characterized by material want, but by human dysfunctionality. Dr. Kass began his talk by mentioning that the leading nutritional problem among the poor in America today is not hunger, but obesity. His point was that it doesn’t work to simply keep treating poverty as a paucity of physical resources, when it has increasingly become a paucity of psychological and spiritual resources. Thus the new poverty is based on dysfunctionality.

And it doesn’t really stop there, does it? America doesn’t just have a new type of poverty, it has a new type of wealth. Today’s elites aren’t just the ones with a lot of money; they’re the productive, the achievers, the successful. These are the new rich, and, like the rich of the Gospel, they have to take very intentional measures to make sure that their cache doesn’t go to their heads and cost them their souls. Like the rich man who wound up in torment because he didn’t give to Lazarus, the high achievers could go to Hell if they don’t stop to give to the poor.

Give what? Money? But as we’ve just seen, the major problem with the poor around us isn’t that they lack money. It’s that they’re dysfunctional, that they lack basic skills or basic areas of human development (probably through no fault of their own) needed to make it in society. So what can you give them?

You can give them time. Time is the lifeblood of love, and it’s also probably the most precious thing highly successful people can sacrifice. After all, we hear it over and over again: time is money. In fact, for most people, time is much harder to give than money – so much easier to write a check to some charity than to sit down and really listen to a person who drains you. So, given the way things have changed from the ancient world to contemporary America, let’s see what happens when we substitute successful for rich, time for money, and dysfunctional for poor.


The Rich must always be wasting Money on the Poor


The Successful must always be wasting Time on the Dysfunctional

And it does feel like a waste, doesn’t it? We all have dysfunctional people in our lives who just suck the time right out of us. People who, no matter how much time we pour in, never seem to improve; they never get any happier, or more normal, or less self-destructive.

But of course, they need us. And, more to the point, we need them. We need them because they are the way we can show love to Christ, and they are the ones who can transform our petty little chunks of Earth-time into the endless eternity of Heaven. No time spent with annoying people, helpless people, or hopeless people is ever actually wasted. And one day, God willing, Our Lord will say to us, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, into the Kingdom prepared for you. For I was really a mess, and you spent time with me.”

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One Response to “Wasting Money on the Poor; Wasting Time on the Dysfunctional”

  1. Pat says:

    This has been in the back of my mind for some time. The checks versus the time spent.

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