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Addressing our hesitancy to give freely


The needy and the greedy

By Rebecca Lister | Presbyterians Today

Hands pulling and tearing a dollar billMy son recently finished the requirements for the Boy Scouts’ highest honor, Eagle Scout. As part of his final project, he designed and built a Little Free Pantry and a Little Free Library, providing food and books to those in need in our community.

He and several other Scouts, family members and volunteers helped install the boxes to hold the food and the books under some shade trees in front of our church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. It is an eye-catching — and community catching — addition. The pantry is especially successful, as it is often empty. We were thrilled to see that the community was using it. However, I was surprised to discover that not everyone in our community was as pleased about it as we were.

I’ve talked to several people, both inside and outside of church, who question the concept of “free.”

“Isn’t that teaching people to be dependent on others for food?” asked one person. “Why shouldn’t they have to work for their food like everybody else?” asked another. One more person said, “I’ve seen people go in and take out food who can afford it. I saw one woman talking on her cellphone as she did it. If she can afford a phone, she can afford food.”

I am always taken aback in conversations like these. I can certainly see their arguments. Yet, deciding who is poor enough to be really poor is dangerous business. Someone who looks well-dressed and carries a cellphone may have just experienced a recent job loss. Perhaps they were even part of the recent government shutdown. They may have some money, but knowing they can get a few cans of soup to heat up for their family for dinner may be what their weary spirits might need. And, who knows? Maybe that same person who took something out of the pantry in rough times will put something back in the pantry in good times.

Tension in giving to the needy can also result in another worrisome need in ourselves: the need to receive thanks. Our church serves lunch once a month on Saturdays for our local homeless shelter. One time, I invited a church member to come help serve, and her response was interesting: “I guess I will. But when I’ve done it before, the people don’t even say ‘thank you.’ ”

I understand the desire to receive thanks. Teaching our little ones to say “please” and “thank you” is one of the first things we do as parents. We want our children to be polite and to acknowledge kindness. Yet this situation probably warrants more grace. How can I possibly understand the despair a homeless person might be feeling? If that person has lost his family, his home and his job, I think I can see how he might feel too embarrassed or depressed to say “thank you.” And even if he doesn’t thank me, I should continue to serve. His acknowledgment shouldn’t be my motivation; love should be.

I remember talking to another friend about the inherent tensions in giving freely to others. She told me that there will always be needy people and greedy people. It is not our job to decide which is which; that is up to God. We must first do what God asks us to do, then we must leave the rest to God.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear that giving to the poor is what is required of Christians. His type of giving seems outlandish to many today, especially when he said in Matthew, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Give to everyone — even if they don’t say “please” and “thank you.”

Jesus says to give — and to give forgiveness — just as freely as your material goods.

I understand there will always be greedy people who work the system and take advantage of others. We live in a fallen world. But we must have the faith and courage to know that God will use our gifts, not as we intend, but as God intends. Our only job is to release our gifts knowing that God will bless them in ways beyond our imagining, for as Romans reminds us, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Rebecca Lister is an associate professor of music at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Her passion is music and worship in churches. She is a student in the online program of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and an inquirer in the Carlisle Presbytery.

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