Nearly every religious and ethical system places a high value on helping those who need it most – those who can do little to help themselves, and who have fewest opportunities, and fewest advocates. But who are “the least of these”?
People who feel a calling to help the down-and-out often work in cancer research, the Red Cross, international humanitarian organizations, or soup kitchens. These are all noble efforts. But in a way, these are the easy targets, and the ones who get the most attention from charity workers. There are other individuals who actually have significantly less access to assistance, and who are more consistently abused and taken advantage of.
Who are “the least of these”? Illegal immigrants. Drug dealers. Prostitutes. Felons. Those accused of crimes who are assigned a public defender. It is these members of society who are most consistently abused, and who have nowhere to turn and no one who thinks them worthy of assistance. They are in the most difficult position of all, precisely because they are not all wonderful, innocent people. Some of them might be scoundrels, though innocent of whatever particular charges they face. Some of them may be decent people. No one knows, and they rarely get a chance at a fair hearing. All the incentives are against them. Law enforcement and prosecutors pad their stats and claim they’re making the world safer by abusing and locking them up. Public defenders have no incentive to prove them innocent. The general public assumes that because they seem less than trustworthy in some things, or because they’ve broken the law, they’re probably guilty of whatever they’re accused of and deserving of whatever punishment. Who would stick their neck out for them?
Working with cancer patients or the innocent poor of the third world is not only fulfilling for many people, but it also makes them look good in the eyes of the public. But helping accused criminals, drug dealers, prostitutes or illegal immigrants might destroy your reputation. It’s relatively easy to help people who are seen as good people on hard times. But what about risking your reputation to help the seedier members of society who are on the wrong side of the law?
What if you told me your one passion in life was to help those least able to help themselves: What if I told you the way to do the most good for those that most need it was to help illegal immigrants avoid harassment by state officials, or to fund legal defense for those accused of crimes who are given a public defender? Would you do it?
I don’t think anyone is obligated to take a career helping others. Nor do I think charity efforts are the only or best way to help others. Indeed, producing, creating and exchanging in the free market, and cultivating the ideas of freedom to do so are more powerful in the long run than all these efforts. But for those who feel the most fulfillment helping the least of these in the short term, it may be worthwhile to consider deeply who the least are. Yes, it is a subjective evaluation – a rich and famous person without a friend may be desperately needy. I am not claiming we can know in any objective sense who are the least. But we might try expanding our paradigm.
Consider those labelled scoundrels. Consider those called criminals. Jesus risked his reputation by hanging out with the unclean riff-raff of society. Not just the noble poor, but the prostitutes. He didn’t care that the law condemned them to death. He dealt with them on their merits as human beings, not their status in the man-made legal system.
Most assistance efforts have a non-criminal record as a precondition to receiving help. Maybe that blocks the very people who need the most help from getting it. The laws of man do not determine who is and is not worthy of help. Don’t let them distract you from offering it.