What Kind of World Have We Made?

Following you will find an excerpt from Brennan Manning’s singular work, The Ragamuffin Gospel. This is a story I am sitting with today and I invite you join me. What kind of town are we living in? What kind of world are we living in?

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of World War II, was called “the Little Flower” by adoring New Yorkers because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.

One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a bad neighborhood, Your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions–ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced the sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine, which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

Manning’s source for this story:

James N. McCutcheon, “The Righteous and the Good,” in Best Sermons (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 238-39.


2 thoughts on “What Kind of World Have We Made?

  1. The discussion I had yesterday with a friend went something like this:
    Me: so when you look at the life of Jesus and the people he cared for and ministered to, it almost seems like a form of socialism
    Friend: yes, that’s right, and the challenge I always gave to my Mennonite friends who get caught up in the issues of social justice was to find a scripture where Jesus said to forcefully make people give to other who are less fortunate. They can’t do it. There is no scripture where Jesus commands us to make someone give to the poor.


    • Here’s the thing. As followers of Christ, we are compelled by love, not by duty. There is a reason we have millions of suffering and starving in our world. It’s simple – we do not love our neighbors. Period. (Preaching to myself here.) No one should have to be in the place where they have to steal food to survive. That’s on me as much as anyone.

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