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The Essence of Christianity?

A few months ago, I attended an event at a theater in downtown Denver. My companions and I were waiting in line in the cold, when I spotted a presumed homeless man seated on the sidewalk holding a cup. I gave him a few bucks, then went back in line.

But I had regrets, not because I agree with the people opposed to giving money to people begging on the street and not because I thought I should have given him more, but because I didn’t speak to him or even acknowledge his presence.

Whether to help beggars has been a bone of contention for me for some time. Some people say giving them money is a way of enabling their homelessness. I find this argument shallow. It presumes that beggars choose this lifestyle and that they could prosper if they wanted to. In my considerable experience with the homeless, that’s simply not the case.

Faith Compels Us

Besides, and more importantly, I believe faith compels us to help such people. And the gospels don’t place any conditions on the giving, justifying our inaction with thoughts such as, “Many of them are fake” or “Many work for organizations that hire them to beg.”

No, it’s just “I was hungry, and you gave me food,” etc.

But I’ve learned that it’s not just about food or drink, or money. I believe that like everyone, people who ask for handouts crave the human touch. Most would appreciate a word or two and a little listening.

Most religions encourage empathy with, and generosity toward, others. But it’s especially important for Christians, whose founder and leader himself was particularly attentive to the poor, the outcast, the marginalized and the emotionally and physically sick.

Are Catholics “Christian?”

(By the way, from the viewpoint of my Catholic faith, it’s bothersome that some people view “Christian” and “Catholic” as entirely separate, as if Catholics are other than Christian. Fact is, Catholics were the first Christians, though that term wasn’t used until around the year 110 when, according to Wikipedia, St. Ignatius of Antioch used it – as well as the first known use of “Christian” – in a letter to Christians in Smyrna.)

I believe attending church is important for Christians, but Jesus said nothing about attending church or synagogue. The most important thing that Jesus taught, in my opinion, by word and action, is how to relate to God and others as well as the total commitment it requires.

As Jose Antonio Pagola, a Spanish theologian and Scripture scholar, puts it: Contact with Jesus “invites us to set aside routines and posturing: it frees us from deceptions, fears and selfishness that paralyze our lives; it introduces in us something as decisive as joy in living, compassion for the least of these, or tireless effort toward a more just world. Jesus teaches us to live with simplicity and dignity, with meaning and hope.

“…How tempting it is” he writes, “to live correctly within the Church without worrying about the one thing Jesus sought: the kingdom of God and its justice.”

No Serious Meaning

Pagola laments that so many people know almost nothing of the real Jesus, that there are “men and women for whom his name has no serious meaning, or his memory was long ago erased from their consciousness. They do not find a source of life and liberation in their religion.

“We begin to encounter Jesus when we begin to trust God as he did, when we believe in love as he did, when we come to suffering people as he did, when we defend life as he did, when we look at people as he did, when we confront life and death with hope as he did, when we pass on the contagion of the Good News as he did.”

I would add, when we begin to treat homeless people, and refugees and immigrants, as he did. All of this, seems to me, is the essence of Christianity.

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