“It is difficult to know who are really needy and who are not, but it is better that unworthy persons should be helped than one worthy person should go empty away.” – Clement of Alexandria
I remember going to Blockbuster with my mom and brother when I was in middle school. As we walked across the parking lot to our car, we were stopped by a couple with a sad story. They were nearly out of gas and needed money to get somewhere (I don’t remember all of the details now). My mother looked skeptical as she slowly removed her wallet from her purse and tossed them a few dollars. We got into our car and watched as the couple did the same. But we didn’t leave. We waited. We watched as they started up their vehicle and pulled out of the parking lot and we followed them. A mile later we watched the little red car they were driving pull into a liquor store. Apparently the gas could wait. Disappointment filled my mother’s voice as she lamented the ‘help’ that she’d given.
It doesn’t take much to get pulled into the pit of cynicism (spend some time in retail if you need help). There are dozens of people around us who are looking to take advantage of us, run us down, or beat us up. And most of the time it’s nothing ‘personal.’ I’m sure the couple who were looking to score a little free booze the night my family passed by didn’t pick us out because they had anything against us personally. We just happened to walk in their
sights at the right time, like a 20-point buck that stumbles on a pile of corn in the middle of a clearing. Wrong place, wrong time. It’s nothing personal.
As I was reading through a biography on Clement of Alexandria, I came across the quote I started this post with. I’ve heard many Christians say that they won’t give money to ‘beggars’ or ‘panhandlers’ because they’re probably going to go waste it on drugs or alcohol or God knows what. I understand the reluctance to give freely to everyone that asks, especially after having someone so blatantly take advantage of you like we did that night at Blockbuster. But when I really think about it, Jesus’ words come to mind:
“Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30).
I just can’t square any other view with Jesus’ words than that of giving to anyone who asks. The fact is, I’ve been commanded, “Freely give” (Matthew 10:8). That’s what I’m responsible to God for; the commands he has given me. If someone lies to or scams me and uses my generosity to sin, that’s between him and God. He will have to give an account for his words and decisions just as I will. But I’d rather not have to explain away my presumptions to God. The fact is, as Clement said, “It is difficult to know who are really needy and who are not.” But that doesn’t excuse us from Christ’s command to “give to everyone who asks of you.”
At this point, some may argue that Christ wouldn’t want us to enable their sin. Are we just supposed to give everything away? And inevitably, someone will want to know if they can have all of the money in my bank account (it’s probably not enough to be worth the trouble asking), after all they are ‘asking of me.’ I’d rather not get into the exceptions. The fact is, the rule is ‘give freely.’ The Holy Spirit knows how to lead us in those exceptions.
Several years after our run-in with the couple at Blockbuster, I was eating with a friend of mine at Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Near the end of our meal, a middle-aged man rolled over to us in a wheelchair. He started to tell his story: his name was Lonny and he’d been in Desert Storm, after getting back home he hadn’t been able to keep a steady job.
“I could use anything you could give me,” he said. For a moment, the image of two scam-artists in a Blockbuster parking lot flashed before my eyes. I ignored the thought and pulled out my wallet. As I fished around for a couple of dollars, I looked at the man who sat before me. He had obviously had a rough go of it.
He smiled and nodded, “Oh yes. I believe in Jesus.”
“Well that’s good. Do you go to church anywhere?”
“No,” he said as he bowed his head slightly. “I can’t drive and have a hard time getting to church.”
“Well, do you have a Bible?”
“I have one but I don’t really understand it. It’s one of those King James ones.”
I gave the wheelchair-bound vet a few dollars and my friend and I finished our meals. As we walked out of the restaurant, I saw the man rolling down the sidewalk toward Target. I ran to catch up to him and told him to wait for me there.
“I’ll be right back, ok?” He nodded with a look of uncertainty in his eyes.
In his providence, God had placed a Christian bookstore in the same parking lot we were in so I headed there and picked up an easier-to-read translation of the Bible. After scribbling a quick note in it, I drove back to where I’d left Lonny. He wasn’t there. My eyes searched the parking lot until I caught sight of him once again. I drove over to him and placed the Bible in his hands. We exchanged a few more words and I left the shopping center, watching him in my rear view mirror. He was holding the cheap Bible as if it was a treasure.
I don’t know what happened to Lonny after I left, but I’ve prayed for him off-and-on since that day. He may have thrown the Bible away and used the money I’d given him to buy beer. I suppose I’ll never know. But here’s what I do know: I was faithful that day to what God asked of me. And that’s really all we can do, isn’t it?
“It is difficult to know who are really needy and who are not, but it is better that unworthy persons should be helped than one worthy person should go empty away.”