When Helping Hurts
10:00 a.m. Sung Mass live-streamed from the Chancel
20 September 2020
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
God, give us hearts to feel and love, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
In Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help, there is a scene that chills my heart. Yule May is a college-educated woman, but because she is African-American in Jim Crow Mississippi, the best job she can find is as a maid to one of the town’s most hateful characters, Hilly Holbrook, a southern belle on a campaign to keep people of color in their place and further tighten Jim Crow laws. When Yule May is short $75 – the difference between sending both her twin sons to college and sending only one – she asks her employer for a loan to be repaid in two months. Hilly refuses her the money. It is her rationale that is so chilling: “[One day you will thank me. A] true Christian [doesn’t] give in charity to [the] well and able. Say it’s kinder to let them learn to work things out themselves” (p. 163). Hilly’s appeal to Christian love as the reason for not helping rings hollow. It is clear she has no love at all for her maid or her twin boys, or for any of the other domestics whose lives she makes so miserable, day after day. While she says she is no racist, she helps people of African descent only if they are far away, preferably orphans in Africa. Presumably, they, at least, know their place.
We often hear such appeals to high-sounding values to justify not helping those in need. Some talk of the culture of dependency assistance can generate, and label it “toxic charity.” While based in the truth of the unintended consequences of a thoughtless generosity, it too rings hollow when repeated regularly to shut down doing good for others in need. Others talk of the need to avoid socialism or big government and use this as a way of shutting down even effective government programs to provide for basic needs, including food and housing for the poor and health care the vast majority of our people. When coupled with a claim that such an appeal is “Christian,” or “biblical,” it too rings hollow: The psalms and proverbs, as well as the prophets, say that caring for the poor and being fair to all is not only our common human duty, but is also the responsibility of kings, magistrates, and governments.
I must admit: in my experience, those argue against government assistance generally give at a higher rate, both in gross and as a function of each person’s individual resources, than do those who argue for it as a first recourse. Both sides share blame here. Both appear to be trying to salve their own conscience and not actually help, to show pity, not empathy or compassion.
Today’s gospel’s parable of the workers, describes how day laborers get very angry when they believe they have been treated unfairly by a well-meaning but clueless land-owner. Like the king in last week’s parable of the unforgiving servant, the landowner here is one of the careless rich, oblivious to the realities of what the rabbis then called the people of the land, and some of our own compatriots call illegals. The landowner can’t be bothered to go through the math of prorating the workday. As little as he is paying these workers, it is simpler just to give all the workers the same wage, whether they have worked a hard eight hours in the heat of the day, or only an easy hour at the end of the day in the crush to get the harvest in before sunset. That is why the workers protest: they are being paid such a pittance that the landowner is willing to throw their entire day’s wage at the newcomers for convenience sake only. They want more. The protest of those who have born the heat of the day is a revolt against what they see as an unfair and demeaning personnel policy. The fact that there are plenty of people at 5 p.m. still waiting at the marketplace for work explains why the wages are so low: in a market economy, supply and demand rules. There is such an overabundance of people needing work that the landowner can pay as little as he finds convenient, or as much as he finds least troublesome. Jesus’ parable asks us to wonder about what is fair. One of the underlying assumptions in the story is people’s need for a living wage. The Gospel of Matthew takes this parable and turns it into an allegory. Those who have worked long and born the heat of the day represent one group of people, the newcomers another, and the landowner perhaps God. Those who have born the heat of the day are seen as stingy and heartless to the newcomers. It is part of Matthew’s preaching to his own community’s Jewish members to accept newly believing Gentiles. “Don’t be stingy with God’s grace to others and don’t question it if God is easier on others than he has been on you!” is the lesson Matthew takes from the parable. I am not sure if such allegorizing does justice to this simple story that presents so many questions. But Matthew asks us how stingy we are with God’s grace to others. And in this, it is wholly in line with Jesus’ idea that we mustn’t demean or objectify others, belittle their efforts and hopes, or base our ideas of fairness on a mathematical formula that determines worth by the marketplace rather than by need. No matter how you read the parable—as a criticism of the resentful workers or as a criticism of the careless rich landowner—the story is about generosity. “Are you envious because I have shown generosity?” asks the landowner at the end of the story.
The problem is that generosity can be uplifting and live-saving, or soul-crushing and alienating. Receiving help can be ennobling or destructive.
Some people are easy to help, and a pleasure to assist. They are grateful, taking nothing for granted, and wanting to “pay it forward” by helping others. But others you may help provoke fear that they will try to rip out your fingernails as you touch hands to give them aid. The difference is whether they themselves are grounded, and secure enough to know to respect boundaries between the giver and the receiver. Being broken by need makes it hard to receive aid graciously.
But being broken by greed makes it impossible to help without hurting. Some people can give generously to ennoble and dignify those they help, while others’ shows of generosity can demean and dehumanize. The difference is whether you respect the dignity of each person, knowing that “there, but for the will of God, go I.” Recognizing our common humanity, our fundamental equal value, is necessary if help is avoid toxicity.
Instead of asking “are you envious because I show generosity?” the landowner perhaps should be asking how to truly show helpful generosity by paying a living wage, one high enough that he is forced to do the bookwork of prorating for latecomers. Being fair hearted is the core issue here: treating others as you would be treated.
The death this week of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg underscores this: according to rabbinic tradition, those who die on Rosh-hashanna are righteous, the upright. Justice Ginsberg’s great work in life was congruent with her faith and upbringing: fairness is necessary first of all, whether in law or in life. She once wrote, “Judaism is an ethical religion. We treat others fairly, we do what’s right, not because we hope for a reward in the afterlife, but because it is what we must do.”
The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the cry of “Why am I being hurt?” lies behind all appeals to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice, the worst sin, we might commit.
We face great need in this valley because of the fires, the smoke, and the pandemic. In all we do, may we seek the dignity of all we assist by recognizing need alone is what makes us worthy of aid. And may we graciously accept help from others.
In the name of Christ, Amen