Thursday, December 9, 2010

Helping the Needy vs. Helping the Greedy

Last week was our annual Christmas Parade of Lights in downtown Palestine. Each year, our church has a float featuring our church's children. It is a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. Several years ago, as a safety concern, the parade officials changed the rules on distribution of candy. Candy can no longer be "thrown" from parade floats. Since the parade is at night, they don't want people being struck by flying jawbreakers and such. Also, due to low visibility, they feared children would run out into the street in pursuit of fallen candy and could be struck by one of the parade vehicles. This was a good move on the part of the parade officials, but it creates an interesting opportunity for us.

Since the new rules were instated, the only way for the candy to be dispersed is for people walking alongside the parade float to pass the candy out by hand. So guess what my role has been during the parade the last two years? Yep. And let me tell you, sometimes the parade moves faster than a brisk walk. There are times when I literally had to quit passing out candy so I could run and catch up with the float (if I didn't stay with the float, I wouldn't have a ride back to the church!). So passing out candy allows me to be one of the few persons who has direct contact with the parade audience.

I noticed something this year, though. There were basically two schools of thought on receiving candy. Some kids were very thankful and appreciative and would respond with a "thank you" or "Merry Christmas" and were often prompted by their parents who responded in like fashion. Then there were others who seemed like they were almost trained to go after whatever free things were available. They were not content with one candy cane, and had no qualms about asking for more. My little sack of candy had to last the majority of the parade, so I could only give one piece to each kid, but parents were jumping in insisting that I give to them as well. And of course, there was no "thank you" to be heard.

This forced an age-old issue to the surface of my mind. It applies for those of us in church work and in service-oriented ministries. And that is this: should we try to make distinctions between needy people and greedy people? When I was in a former church in a small Central Texas town, churches often shied away from helping people because they just assumed they were working the system. My current church has a ministry that helps with utility bills. And while we only can help each family once a year (so we can help the largest number of people) and can usually only pay $40 or $50 on each bill, there are people who will be upset with us because we can't or won't do more. So is there a way to distinguish between the two groups? If there is a way to distinguish between them, is it our place to do so? I think the latter question is really at the heart of the matter.

In Luke 17, Jesus comes across ten men with leprosy. These were social outcasts who really had no existence because they had been ostracized by society. They were forbidden from being in contact with the general population because they suffered from a very severe and very contagious disease. Upon being near other "clean" people, they would be forced to yell out, "Unclean, unclean!" to warn people of their presence. And this time they met Jesus. They cried out for him to "have pity on (them)". Jesus replies that they should go and show themselves to the priest. This was a necessary procedure for them to be re-admitted into the general population. And as they went, they were cleansed. But wouldn't you know that after being healed, only one person came back to thank Jesus. And to this one, Jesus says "Your faith has made you well." But the others were well for crying out to Jesus, weren’t they? Most scholars believe Jesus is speaking of spiritual healing. His faith had saved him.

So did Jesus not know the hearts of the other nine? He asks some seemingly rhetorical questions to the grateful one saying, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? (the grateful leper was a Samaritan)" I don't think much gets past Jesus. I'm pretty sure he knew the hearts of the other nine. Yet he healed them anyway. But the faith of the one, as demonstrated in his gratitude, gave him so much more than a normal earthly existence. It gave him eternal life.

So maybe there is something to Jesus' model. For those of us with limited resources in service ministries, we might be able to learn something from this. Maybe God wants us to minister to all who have need. And maybe only one in ten (to use the numbers from this story) will truly have gratitude and or faith that will lead to their salvation. I think where we get it wrong is we expect everyone we help to have that gratitude...that "saving faith", if you will. But Jesus knew better than that. And I think we are kidding ourselves to think that every person we help through our church or service organization is going to receive help with a grateful heart. Should we guard ourselves against those who do not legitimately need help and are just be working the system? God has called us to be good stewards of our resources and we should be wise and discreet in how we go about helping people. But either way, we should try to meet the needs that are there and leave the results to God. We may never know the eternal results of our service on this side of heaven. But that's where faith comes in, isn't it?

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