After a half-century, books by Thomas Merton remain widely read; The Seven Storey Mountain is a spiritual masterpiece. The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, published in 1959, has still-valid insights; for example, Merton writes that the Pharisees and Judas "had a system all worked out, and a lot of special prayers for every penny given away. It was a very efficient system, almost like a modern 'charity' with a huge filing-system and a big sucker list of names... The Pharisees knew how to take care of the poor in such a way that the poor would be always with them."
Merton notes that Jesus said, "for such gifts, the poor would be always with them. There is a distinction between Charity, the theological virtue, and Charity a modern word meaning a mechanical and impersonal kind of alms giving, as, for example, when a millionaire leaves all his money to 'Charity.' The poor will always be there for this kind of alms giving, where the rich man, infinitely distant from the poverty of the poor, scratches with a pen on a paper and starts a long series of bookkeeping entries and abstract transactions which end up a long time later with a nervous social worker scolding a group of kids who are trying to play baseball in a crowded street somewhere in a slum.
Merton concludes wisely that "Without love, alms giving is no more important an activity than brushing your hair or washing your hands." How much love does our current system of big welfare and big charity show? The good news, though, is that some churches and Christian groups do show love. (We try to tell some of those stories in World.)