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July 30, 2008

The Quality of Mercy (or Charity)

In Tuesday's Washington Post, Hank Stuever tells a sad but not-all-that-surprising story about what happened after the folks at ABC's "Extreme Makeover" packed up their cameras and left.

In that particular episode of the hyper-benevolent reality show, which first aired in February 2005, it took 1,800 volunteers a week to demolish the house with the overflowing septic tank that belonged to Milton and Patricia Harper of Lake City, Ga., and then entirely rebuild a new, larger house, while the Harpers and their three children went away to Disneyland. When they returned, they had the biggest house on Ahyoka Drive, with all the appliances and furnishings, plus enough money to pay taxes on it for decades, plus a fund to send their children to college.

Three and a half years later,

The house will be auctioned off, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, next Tuesday on the steps of the Clayton County Courthouse.

The Harpers had used their home as collateral on a $450,000 loan from JPMorgan Chase and fell in arrears, the newspaper reported.

Needless to say, some folks are understandably angry: Lake City mayor Willie Oswalt told reporters that "it's aggravating. It just makes you mad. You do that much work, and they just squander it."

The episode brought to mind a passage from the scriptures that changed my life. In the Bhagavad Gita (I didn't say whose scriptures), Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that no one owns the results of his efforts -- all he owns is his diligence and faithfulness. Our goal should be to do the right thing in a "disinterested" -- acting without attachment to the fruits of the action -- manner.

Obviously, the Bible says much the same thing -- sometimes I need to step outside my tradition to appreciate what my own tradition teaches. I realized that I was driving myself crazy worrying about whether or not all my efforts -- especially as regards my son -- would somehow "pay off" and had forgotten that, as Mother Theresa said, I should not pray for success but instead for faithfulness. It is enough to be whom David and my friends need me to be; the rest is up to God.

That's why I don't see what happened in Lake City as a waste, as least for those who understood what Krishna and Mother Teresa (a shared reference I suspect that the Indian citizen Mother Teresa might have appreciated) were talking about. What made their actions good had nothing to do with the Harpers' response. On the contrary, people who work with "hard cases" know from experience that the beneficiaries of their benevolence will often, at least for a while, "squander" that benevolence. So what?

I mean that: so what? What concern is it of yours? 

It's telling (at least to me) that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, none of the people who passed by the man -- including the Samaritan -- knew why he lay there. (In fact, the first two had perfectly good reasons having to do with ritual purity for not getting involved.) For all the Samaritan knew, he had fallen afoul of his fellow robbers. Yet, he extended mercy to him without knowing and thus loved his neighbor as himself.

As I see it, if we extend mercy to those whom others deem "unworthy" of it, we have wasted nothing -- if we withhold that mercy in fear that they might squander it, we have wasted our lives.

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Chris Clukey

Excellent post, Roberto.

I would be interested to see how many of the people helped by Extreme Makeover end up like lottery participants and how many do the smart thing with the generosity they're given.

Maybe the show's producers should consider setting up the cash part of the generosity as trusts.


I read the news headlines concerning the Harpers. Again this all comes to bear on the state of want in the U.S.. having worked and seen this in Appalachia while on missions. this is more common then not. People striving for the wrong things of this life.Even when given those things that to others would seem great.

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