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Give to the poor. January 1, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was horrified to read this morning that billionaire Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot, had attacked Pope Francis for daring to suggest that wealthy people donate money to the poor instead of, say, their own self-aggrandizement. Mr. Langone, who is a trustee of and donor to the $180 million renovations of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, said, in effect, “Who does this guy think he is, trying to tell us how to donate our money? Who wants to give money to the poor? Will that get your name on the wall of the cathedral? How can you even prove it to get your massive tax deduction?”

Our friend Ben thinks that Mr. Langone and like-minded billionaires and millionaires would find it enlightening to watch a movie from 1947, once considered a must-see Christmas classic, called “The Bishop’s Wife.” In the movie, a young, ambitious bishop, played by David Niven, has abandoned his struggling New York parish church to focus on building a great cathedral. Cary Grant plays an angel sent to help the bishop—and everyone whose lives he touches—discern their true priorities.

This certainly strikes a chord in my area, where many churches, threatened with closure, support themselves when the pastor rolls up his sleeves and makes nut rolls, kiffles and the like for sales to help the parish eke out another year. And of course, in the movie, the struggling inner-city parish of St. Timothy’s gets a new lease on life as well.

But the lesson Mr. Langone and his ilk could take from this film is provided by the bishop’s patroness, Mrs. Hamilton. The wealthy Mrs. Hamilton is willing to bankroll the new cathedral if, and only if, it is made into a monument to her deceased industrialist husband. She demands that a chapel be built in his name and put front and center in the cathedral, with his name incised in huge letters in marble and gilded with gold. She even insists that the stained-glass window portraying St. George and the Dragon feature her husband’s likeness as St. George.

The bishop, convinced that a great cathedral would be worth as much kowtowing and compromise as it took to erect it, agrees to Mrs. Hamilton’s demands. But fortunately, the angel, posing as the bishop’s secretary, pays a visit to Mrs. Hamilton and reminds her of her humanity, her ties to all the poor, weak, and suffering. When the bishop returns to collect Mrs. Hamilton’s check, she informs him, radiantly, that she’s decided to give the money to the poor instead.

Just as the divide between the very wealthy and the rest of us has grown exponentially in the last decade, so has the increase in giving on the part of the very rich. Just this morning, I read an article about the top ten American donors of 2013, and to make that top ten, they had to be giving between $100 and $992-plus million. But what were they giving it to?

Certainly not the poor and suffering. These are tech/investment/real estate millionaires/billionaires, and they put their money where their minds and fears rather than their hearts are: in research. Every single one of them gave to research hospitals or universities. Lesser donors give to up-and-coming entrepreneurs, seeing echoes of their young selves.

They all think big. Not one thinks of the poor streets in their own states, filled with suffering, laid-off, impoverished, cold, suffering people who can’t afford to pay their mortgages or heating bills, who can’t afford to feed and clothe their kids, who may be working three jobs and never making ends meet.

There’s a kickback here, too, and not just in terms of tax writeoffs. For every huge donation, there’s an endowed chair or a building or a museum wing or opera house or even a university or hospital in your name. There it is, incised in gold-plated marble on your own personal cathedral. Or, in Mr. Langone’s case, on St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

This is by no means a new form of payback. Alfred Nobel and Joseph Pulitzer and the MacArthurs and Cecil Rhodes would all have become footnotes in history were it not for the prestigious awards, prizes and fellowships they established. They live on through their generosity. But did even one of them give a dollar to the poor? Did even one of them so much as think about the poor, even for one moment of their lives? Where is the glory in that?

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the champion of the poor, said that in every suffering face, she saw the Lord in His distressing disguise. She erected no cathedrals and wore no grand attire. Her homespun wisdom and compassion echo that of Pope Francis’s grandmother, who said, “Burial shrouds don’t have pockets.”

Jesus the Christ had a great deal to say about the Pharisees, who made quite a racket when they gave alms. “They have their reward,” He noted. The Ken Langones of this world might do well to sit up and take notice.



1. WmS. - January 1, 2014

Amen Sister and happy new year.

Thanks, William, and a happy, healthy, and blessed new year to you and yours as well. Thanks as ever for taking the time to read through my rants!

2. Daphne - January 2, 2014

I’m not Jewish but I always liked the Jewish eight levels of charity. The greatest is to help someone enough that they can take care of themselves. Ie teach a man to fish (or help him get the fishing pole if he knows how to fish) instead of giving him fish. The second is to give to someone who is in need that you don’t know and they don’t know who is giving it to them. So totally anonymous in both directions. No cathedrals in someone’s name.

Hi Daphne! I think this Jewish tradition is the one Jesus was brought up in, which enabled him to emphasize that the more anonymous your giving, the better your reward in Heaven. (“Let your left hand not know what your right hand is doing.”) The practice of the Pharisees of blowing horns when they gave alms, to make sure everyone saw their generosity, was, to Him, the antithesis of true generosity, anonymous giving. I wish today’s philanthropists might listen up.

3. Huma - January 3, 2014

Excellent post!

Thanks, Huma!

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