The Debt of Love

February 19, 2010

The Debt of Love

There was once a holy man who journeyed to Mecca in beggar’s clothing. There he saw a barber shaving a nobleman. When he asked the barber to shave him, the barber immediately left the wealthy man and shaved this stranger in his midst. He refused to take any money for his work, but rather, gave the holy man some as alms.

The pilgrim was so touched that he decided he would give to the barber whatever he received in alms that day. It so happened that a wealthy pilgrim came up to him and gave him a bag of gold coins. So the holy man went up to the barber’s shop that evening and offered the gold to the barber.

But in response the barber grabbed a razor and chased him away, yelling, “What kind of a holy man are you that you come to reward me for an act of love?”


After taking a couple sociology classes I learned that there’s no such thing as a truly altruistic deed. People do good for any number of reasons: To curry favor; to feel better about themselves; to look good in the eyes of others; to induce indebtedness; etc., whatever. I didn’t like learning this; in fact, it is something I wish I could unlearn. At first it made me extremely suspicious of any good deed anyone performed towards me. “What do they want from me? How can I pay them back?” It was such an impoverished attitude to take towards generosity. Even if a person’s reasons for doing good are less than angelic, it should not stop me from gratefully accepting any charity that comes my way.

My reaction was a normal one, though. When people move into a new neighborhood, often their new neighbors will invite them over for dinner. How much unnecessary stress does this cause? “Shouldn’t we invite them over soon in return? Maybe if we just got some flowers or something… How long should we wait before reciprocating?” Indeed, some people do a good turn fully expecting reciprocation at some point, and become indignant when it isn’t forthcoming. It is hard to know what’s going on in the murk of the human mind.

This story gives a different perspective, though. If this was happening around the time of the Hajj, then the barber could very well have been caught up in the religious fervor and good will that must surely have been saturating the atmosphere. Part of a Muslim’s duty– one of the five pillars– is to give alms, so in giving the pilgrim a free shave and donating alms the barber saw himself as simply doing what God asks any believer to do. This requires no renumeration. This is where the pilgrim fundamentally misunderstands Islam, and where a lot of Christians misunderstand the Christian commands to look after the widow and the orphan. When a person does this, they do it– hopefully– out of love and obedience to God and their fellow human. They need no further compensation, and to worry and fret about it is to take the a holy inter-action and transform it into a trans-action. What is supposed to be an outflowing of love from one person to another becomes just another monetary exchange.

The giving of alms, the work of charity, is supposed to be a radical subversion of our normal interactions. It is supposed to expose the poverty of preying upon one another in a transactional sense. By falling into this common trap we make it harder to let the transforming work of God take place.

“What kind of holy man are you that you come to reward me for an act of love?”

Indeed, the act is itself the reward, and why should we be suspicious of that? I’m not anymore.


2 Responses to “The Debt of Love”

  1. Jessie said

    i really like this.


  2. Hannah said

    This is so good Chris, the act of charity can appear to be as negative as it is positive…but maybe it is important not to over think the act, but rather just do and just accept.

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