Every time I fly to New York I land at LaGuardia, named after the flamboyant mayor of New York City during the Great Depression, Fiorello LaGuardia. I think of a story about Mayor LaGuardia that happened at the height of the Great Depression.
Before he became mayor he served for a time as a police court judge. One cold winter’s day they brought a man to him who was charged with stealing a loaf of bread. LaGuardia asked him if he was guilty, and the man said he was. He had taken the bread because his family was starving and he had no money to buy food.
LaGuardia said, “Sir, I’ve got to punish you; the law makes no exceptions, and I fine you $10.00!” He brought down his gavel, but then the man looked at him and said, “Your honor, I have no money for the fine. You may just as well throw me in jail.”
LaGuardia said, “Sir, I wasn’t finished.” He pulled out his wallet, took a $10 bill out of it, handed it to the bailiff and said, “Here’s the money for your fine.” Then he said to the bailiff, “Now give it back to me.”
He took back the $10, put it into a hat, handed the hat to the bailiff and said, “I’m going to suspend the sentence, and I’m going to fine everyone in here in the courtroom 50 cents for living in a city where a man has to steal bread in order to eat.” When that man left that courtroom that day there was a bounce to his step. He had $47.50 in his pocket. A God Flash
That’s the kind of attitude that God expects us to have with our money and with our possessions. God does not want us to be a Pharisee or to act like one. Pharisees are people who give just to be seen by others, so that other people will think that that are generous. But it is just a show.
Jesus said that these Pharisees “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43). They were doing the right thing, but for the wrong motive. The problem was not the “what” but the “why”.
Helder Camara was the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The poverty he saw everyday was overwhelming. I had the distinct pleasure as a high school student of escorting him to the podium for a talk at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. It was 20 degrees below zero outside and the wind was howling. The quote that Camara is most remembered for today gives us all much food for thought, reflection and prayer:
“When I give food to feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”
Special thanks to James Merritt