If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you. (Deuteronomy 24.12-13)
While we exult in Advent’s time of expectation, for many it is a season of dark dread. Even as we read this, countless people are suffocating with anxiety because they have no means of celebrating the Feast of the Nativity or placing gifts under the tree—if they have a tree at all. We rally around these folks and do everything we can to lift their burden. Yet in our giving we should be wary that it comes with no strings attached—without pity, without prejudice, without any expectation of reward or praise, and most of all, without any sense we are somehow superior (or “more blessed”) than those in need.
We are culturally predisposed to divide and separate the well off from the less fortunate, the haves from the have-nots. Of this supposition, Dorothy Day wrote:
The poor, it seems, have no right to beauty, to order. Poverty must be squalor, filth, ugliness, to be deemed poverty. But this is destitution, and it was usually from such destitution that our family had “come up in the world.”
It should humble us to realize our families have been where those we help presently are. A journey back through our histories land us at a point where we too faced poverty and its stigmas. Yet someone saw to our needs because making our families strong strengthened the community at large.
In the Hebrew Bible, provision for the poor is consistently framed in the context of community. It is for the common good that those having much are expected to give to those having little. In Deuteronomy, we see one method of how this works. When poor people need help, it is offered in the guise of a loan to protect the recipient from being disparaged as a freeloader. The “lender” takes the “borrower’s” cloak as collateral, presumably to be held until the “debt” is paid. Before the day ends, however, the cloak is returned to ensure the needy person can sleep comfortably through the cold night. The leverage to demand payment is removed so the poor person’s anxieties are quelled and he/she doesn’t lose respect. This is the same principle that Jesus cites when saying, “If someone asks for your coat, offer your shirt as well.”
As we go about our seasonal giving to those in need, let us take care to honor their dignity as valuable members of our communities. It’s not about feeling good about what we do to help out. It’s not about feeling sorry for those who need our help. It’s about easing their anxieties and keeping them warm and safe during a time when circumstance threatens their capacity to care for their own.