The Needy and the Greedy
What makes us afraid to give freely to the needy?
by Rebecca Lister
My son recently finished the requirements for the Boy Scout’s highest honor, Eagle Scout. As part of his final project, he designed and built a Little Free Pantry and a Little Free Library. He and several other Boy Scouts, family members and volunteers helped install them under some shade trees in front of our church. It is an eye-catching — and community-catching — addition. The pantry is especially successful as it is often is empty. We were thrilled to see that the community was using it. I was surprised to discover, however, 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 our 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?”
Another said, “I know 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 carrying a cellphone may have just experienced a recent job loss. Perhaps they were even part of the recent government shut-down. 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. It is not a permanent solution, ideally, 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.
The Tension in Giving
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 can be so rude. They 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 everything — his family, his home, his job, his life — 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 still continue to serve. His acknowledgement 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 up to God.
Jesus makes it abundantly clear t that giving to the poor is what is required of Christians. His type of giving seems outlandish:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (NRSV, Matthew 5:38–42)
Note, Jesus does not say “give to everyone who begs from you — after you find out that they are really poor and deserve it.” He does not say “give to everyone who begs from you — but only a little, because they might become dependent.” He does not say “give to everyone who begs from you — but only if they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’” He 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 on-line program of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and is an Inquirer in the Carlisle Presbytery.