Help others and help yourself

A few months ago, a show called Avenue Q came to the Corn Exchange, an adult version of Sesame Street or the Muppet Show. It is a rather naughty, but cleverly written show about the lives of people who live downtown in Avenue Q, a place where you can find cheap accommodation. The characters suffer various misfortunes. One song in the show is about schadenfreude, (taking pleasure from the misfortune of others), but there is also a delightful song about the joy to be had from giving away money, even when you are hard up yourself. It observes:

When you help others

You can’t help helping yourself

Every time you do good deeds

You’re also serving your own needs

When you give to a worthy cause

You’ll feel as jolly as Santa Claus.

When you help others

You’re really helping yourself.

What is our motivation to help other people? Does it come naturally, is it part of our nature, to help others? Do we do it to feel better about ourselves? Do we do it under duress because we feel we have to? Do we regard it as our Christian duty?  Do we give to others because we think we will please God?

Two passages stick in my mind when thinking about the Christian duty of charity. One is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, when people help or ignore the needy without realizing and are judged accordingly. The other is the passage from James today. In which he says it is not enough to wish people well without providing them with means to make it happen. You cannot just say to a poor person, keep warm, eat plenty. The good wish alone is not enough. The good intention if not backed up by a deed is no good.

St James says that a Christian who acts acts like that has a dead faith.  Martin Luther had little time for the Epistle of James, he called it an epistle of straw. It appears to contradict Luther’s great revelation found in Paul’s Letter to the Romans of justification by faith. Luther attacked the medieval church for teaching that endowing churches and giving money to charitable causes would help you buy your way into heaven. For Luther it was belief and faith in the saving work of Christ which was most important.

The Letter of James is an excellent little book of the Bible which deserves reading. It is a dedicated to the twelve tribes of the dispersion, one way in which the early Christians referred to themselves, and was intended for the early Jewish church. It is identified with James, the brother of the Lord, who was the leader of that church. The writer may have been writing generally or with a specific church community in mind. He certainly does not mince his words. He is vehement in his criticism of gossip and loose talk, he condemns those who are double-minded and do not stick to their beliefs and he warns his readers against showing preferential treatment to the rich over the poor.

Poverty is a cross that many have to bear, but it is a cross that we can help to shoulder. We can help to reduce its weight by picking up some of the burden ourselves or we can ignore it and let the person struggle on alone.

In the church of St Martin at Oak in Norwich there is a stone tablet that records the generosity of Edmund Manning, a tradesman who 'was desirous of imparting such useful instruction to the poor when young as may enable them respectably to maintain themselves in their riperyears.' The tablet records how the interest and dividends of £4,000 were to be used to provide apprenticeships for twelve poor children, drawn from six parishes each year. It was a very generous bequest back in 1838. In St Augustine’s church down the road there is exactly the same stone tablet, no doubt one was put in each of the churches of the parishes he helped. It may be seen as rather vain, but I doubt whether the poor apprentices cared about Mr Manning’s motives but were glad to have the opportunity to learn a trade. Those stone tablets which preserved the memory of the city tradesman may well have encouraged others to deeds of philanthropy.

There may well be different motives for helping those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Whatever motivates us, St James reminds us that it is the deed which matters. If we have faith in God that is truly alive, if we really love him then we will help others whenever the need presents itself, and if that makes us feel good, then that will be a bonus.