If you haven’t finished your Christmas list yet, you might consult another list written by Moses. No, not that Moses. This Moses was a Rabbi from the 13th century, Moses Maimonides.
His list — Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity — describes eight levels that motivate our giving to those in need. Read the paraphrased list below along with my comments and ask yourself which one best describes your motives.
1. Giving to the poor unwillingly.
This is what a Tibetan Buddhist named Trungpa Rinpoche called “Idiot compassion.” It’s the kind of giving we do when we can’t bear to see someone suffer. That’s co-dependency and we only do it out of our own need to avoid suffering.
2. Giving to the poor happily, but inadequately.
This happens when the coffee barista asks whether you’d like to add $1 to help AIDS orphans in Africa. We smile generously, because smiles are cheap, and we reply, “Certainly” — even though we know a buck is a woefully “inadequate” for such a momentous task.
3. Giving to the poor after being asked.
This can either be giving pocket change to the homeless or writing a large check at a charity benefit. You do it because in some sense you had to be pressured before you “noticed” the need.
4. Giving to the poor without being asked.
Giving gets a bit harder at this level. You’ve got to be looking for needs. As Kaiser Cement Corp. used to say, “Find a need and fill it.” Truthfully, I usually hover about a “4.”
5. Giving to the poor without knowledge of the recipient, but allowing the recipient to know your identity.
This is giving to someone we don’t know, but we still “allow” them to hear of our generosity, perhaps because we are waiting for the applause.
6. Giving to the poor with knowledge of the recipient but without allowing the recipient to know your identity (anonymous giving).
Some see this as the highest form of giving. Perhaps you give your pastor $200 to buy clothes for the Jones’ family and whisper, “Don’t tell them who gave this gift.” It’s a high form of giving, because it concentrates on the need and doesn’t wait for applause.
7. Giving to the poor without knowledge of the recipient and without allowing the recipient to know your identity.
This gets much harder, because there simply is no “payback.” This might occur where a person runs from a restaurant without paying. You pay the bill and he receives the gift oblivious to your generosity.
8. Investing in a poor person in a manner in which they can become self-sufficient.
This giving is illustrated in that saying, “Give a person a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
This is extremely hard, because “the gift” is really you. It requires that you know your ABCs of charity — Assess the problem. Believe you can effect a change. And implement Charity.
These ABCs are best characterized in the radical giving Jesus introduced in his parable about a poverty-stricken widow who gave all she had, two coins worth half a cent.
In Mark 12, Jesus says, “This widow . . . has put in more than all those contributing to the treasury. For they all threw in out of their abundance; but she, out of her deep poverty, has put in . . . all she had on which to live.”
Our current economy might be best benefited from this kind of radical giving. After all it’s the kind of giving that God best demonstrated when he put a baby in a Bethlehem manger 2,000 years ago