He sat next to me at dinner. I had been cutting my youngest’s meat for him and didn’t notice Matthew* pull up his chair.
We chit-chatted about the weather and the football and the warm meal being served up by the community kitchen. There was a glint in his eye I recognized, but I hadn’t yet realized where it came from.
Over the course the meal we talked about hope and illness and isolation and strength. We talked about the smoothness of the mashed potatoes (they were delicious!), the delight of children (grandchildren in his case), and the joys and challenges of inner city living.
When he told me he had been HIV positive for a decade and a half, we talked about the marvels of modern medicine and how the city hospital a ten-minute walk from my house used to have an entire floor dedicated to HIV/AIDS patients until that wing was no longer needed. He spoke of nearly dying and how his osteoporosis has underwritten several broken bones since then, and how he goes to three churches as much as he’s able because “each of them differently reflects God.”
His stories of heartbreak and suffering weren’t tales to elicit pity. He wasn’t there in search of charity. He wasn’t pulling on heartstrings, he was—in his own way—offering a response of worship and praise. Perhaps he had discovered the gift of vulnerability and how it makes a way for love to be realized. Perhaps he knew how powerful the light in him truly was.
As the conversation turned toward gratitude I realized why I recognized the glint in his eye. I wanted to cup his cheeks in my hands and drink long and slow of the joy mingling around us. I wanted to kiss his hands and wash his feet and call him Jesus, for I knew I had eaten with the Savior that night.
Leaving the community kitchen my mind wasn’t filled with ideas for how to reach “those people” who were in need, or with what new or innovative ways my family and I might serve. Instead my mind was filled with how “those people” would change me and how much I need them.
What is ‘charity’ and are we getting it wrong?
This image is beautiful, and I agree with the sentiments it hopes to convey, and yet it doesn’t encompass the fullness of truth. Christian charity (which is translated from the Greek word ‘agape’ for love) is a love that’s sacrificial, unconditional, and anything but “crumbs.” Yet we’ve turned it into a slur—the term “charity case” is always used in a derogatory sense—and in doing so we’ve twisted the word (and concept) into something ugly and opposite of what it actually means.
Charity is not something we should despise, but a word that needs to be redefined within our modern context using language our society doesn’t cheapen and throw away. Charity describes the type of love Jesus displayed as he took himself to the cross. His sacrificial act of love certainly wasn’t handing the world crumbs; his demonstration of charity gave the world hope and promise, redemption and purpose.
Like the image suggests, the notion of giving someone a seat at your table (instead of handing them your leftovers) is an idea worth spreading. Absolutely. But that very concept—I would suggest—is what ‘charity’ really is. Christian, gospel-focused charity means making space for others and giving them our best because they deserve it. All image-bearers, all of creation “deserve” it.
It’s not the poor or the “needy” who need our charity; it’s all of us. Matthew helped remind me of that when he extended charity toward me by inviting me into his heart as we shared the table together.
Our labor for justice should be fueled by a motivation of love (true Biblical charity), not opposed to it. Perhaps we’ve just mixed up our definitions a little, albeit with good intentions for positive social change.
Maybe it’s time we get those words straight again so we can walk in the fullness of God’s intentions for our lives. Justice motivated by charitable love is God’s hope for humanity… and sometimes that might look a bit like sharing meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Who are you extending charity to these days? And who are you receiving charity from? I hope your table is full and that love and justice abounds.
Personally? I can’t wait to go back and eat dinner with Jesus again.
*Name changed for privacy.