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Charity Begins at Home

‘Charity begins at home’ is an oft-repeated line but what does it mean?

From time to time it is used, it seems, to justify not giving generously of our time or substance outside of our family or nation. I suspect that this is the direct opposite of the meaning and intention of the saying. Clearly it is a human responsibility for us to care for those at home. There is no charity (meaning sacrificial loving generosity) in caring for those we are responsible for. Charity begins at home implies that it doesn’t end there.

Once shown, received and learnt in the home we are well equipped to demonstrate unselfish love to others who will have no opportunity to repay us. Charity is the English translation of the Authorised Version (1611) of ‘love’ in the famous 1 Corinthians 13. It translates the Greek word agape which was coined by Christians to firstly describe the self-giving love of Christ for sinners and then of our responsive love to others. Other words like eros, philos (brotherly love) and storge (family love) were available but none could do service for the Son of God’s love for humankind. Love unconcerned by the beauty or responsiveness of the object of our love is the characteristic of this kind of love.

Charity ending at home would be an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Charity beginning at home and then flowing out to others far and wide, without any expectation of reward, is the way of deep personal and communal blessing. Our own national giving is still, I understand, running at a very low percentage of our GNP and well below an agreement made years ago. Gambling, the exact opposite of charity, is becoming more endemic amongst us. None of this can be good for us, since its net result is a hardening of heart toward the many who could benefit from our generosity. The real losers in an attitude of heart not matched by selfless giving are ourselves, since we imagine that we will be better off and happier with more. But like the monkey that couldn’t get its hand out of the lolly jar until it was willing to let go of its fistful of goodies, we are paradoxically unable to enjoy what God so generously has given us to enjoy until generous giving becomes second nature.