Salt and Light

Well, last Saturday I wrote about the appropriations process and the unimaginably hard decisions our legislators face regarding tax dollars that pay for care for the poor, the homeless, the old, and the disabled. 

They must reconcile a dearth of funds with a world of need.

And then I mentioned a question someone had asked me recently about whether it really is the taxpayer who should be required to care for those in need after all.  I scratched my head and wondered, too.

Comes Fr. Larry Sunday morning to shed light (he brought a salt shaker with him) and discourse on the matter.  The readings were from Isaiah 58:7-10 and Matthew 5:13-16.  Fr. Larry said that Isaiah is telling us what we should do, and Jesus is reminding us who we should be.

We are to share with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked “when you see them,” and not turn our back on our own.

As for the role of salt in all this, Fr. Larry reminded us that salt was once a precious commodity for its properties of making food taste better and preserving it from spoilage–so precious it was offered up as a sacrifice in the temple ceremonies.  Our bodies absolutely must have it to live.

Likewise light.  I try to imagine night time in the Middle East during the time of Jesus, the enveloping darkness held at bay for only a few hours in the evening by a small oil lamp.

We are salt, called to make things better.  We are light, called to carry the truth to the dark recesses of the human soul.  Formidable callings.

I recall arguing once with a conservative friend who was angered by the Church's stance toward undocumented Mexicans, its insistence on providing assistance to those within our borders illegally.  I quite agreed that yes, as a society we face serious problems resulting from the huge disparities in opportunity and freedom that drive people to come into our country at almost any cost.

But the Church, represented in this case by the Bishop of Los Angeles, is doing exactly what it is called to do and in fact, cannot do otherwise and remain faithful to its calling.  That phrase from Isaiah–when you see them–put things in stark relief.

I wrote the other day about the yes, buts that overtake me when I ponder how best to deal with social issues that set conservatives and liberals at each other's throats.  If there's one thing I've learned in life it's that you get more of whatever behavior you reward, which leads to some serious problems for society as a whole over time (and for the individual, too, and pretty darned quick).

Some people who work with the homeless beg us not to give money to panhandlers because we're enabling them, and I suspect they're right: If the panhandlers got no reward for their behavior, they'd move on to something else, maybe even something better.

But we see them, standing there on the corner.  Usually I pass them by, making a mental note to send a check to St. Vincent de Paul or Mary House Catholic Worker.  But this week, the cold has been so extreme, so bitter, when I encountered one old man on a corner, his eyes streaming from the north wind, I couldn't believe he was out there, and I really didn't care what he'd done or not done to wind up there.

I was incapable of driving past him as though I did not see him.  I whipped out a ten dollar bill and handed it to him. 

“God bless you, ma'm!” he said to me.  “I'm off this corner for tonight!  God bless you, ma'm!”

Maybe I did it for the right reasons, maybe for the wrong reasons.  If it was more to appease my conscience than concern for my fellow man, I ask God to use it for good anyway. 

And blame Fr. Larry.