A long time ago, I was sitting in my office–this was one of the churches I served that actually had an office for the pastor–and a parishioner dropped in. I have generally enjoyed drops in such as this–it beats working most times because I get a chance to offer them coffee and sit and chat and feel like I am actually working.
Anyway, this particular day, the man dropped in because he had some information and a warning for me. The church was involved in helping some families in the community who were struggling financially. We had some connection with the local food bank, we had a benevolent fund, we worked with other local churches to provide Christmas boxes and we were helping the community develop a school breakfast program. My drop-in wanted to give me some information that he felt I needed to know.
Basically, he had heard that in previous years, some of the recipients of the Christmas baskets had registered with several different benevolent organizations and ended up with 2 or three Christmas baskets. My visitor wasn’t upset that we were helping people–but he was upset that some people were scamming the system and getting away with it. He wanted to tell us we should tighten up the system a lot more.
I assured him we were working on it. We had begun coordinating our efforts with the other groups in the area and we were making sure that people applying for support were recommended by someone we trusted. And then I told him the basic truth of helping ministry–the only way to avoid getting cheated was to do nothing.
Jesus said in Matthew 26.11 ” The poor you will always have with you…” and my experiential addition to this truth is “And along with that, there will be people trying to scam the system”. If you make the system tight enough to shut out the scammers, you will automatically make the system so tight and unyielding that people with legitimate needs will be shut out–but the scammers will still likely find a way to use the system.
If we want to help people in need, we are going to have to accept the fact that we will get cheated at some point. We need to be diligent and we need to be prudent and we need to be careful but we are going to be cheated. We are also going to help a lot of people.
I keep going back to the Biblical stories of Jesus feeding the crowds (Luke 9.10-17; Matthew 15.29-39). In both cases, Jesus was faced with crowds of thousands of hungry people. Now, this was not starving to death hungry–this was missed meals because of the impromptu teaching session with Jesus. Once they were home, they could eat and things would be fine.
But Jesus fed them–without a means test, without checking to see if someone was hiding a peanut butter sandwich or a chocolate bar in their pocket, without eliminating the people who could obviously afford to skip a meal or two. He fed them–all of them.
I am sure in those crowds there were people who had food with them–there has to have been someone like me who would think ahead and pack a survival kit. I am equally sure that there were people there who could have made it home without collapsing from hunger on the way. And because Jesus had all the knowledge of God available to him, he knew or could have known the state of everyone there. He could have easily separated those with real needs from those who were not so needy and at the same time deal the potential scammers.
But Jesus didn’t do any of that–there were hungry people there and he fed everyone–those who really needed it and those who needed it a bit and those who would have scammed the system. Did he get taken? By our standards, probably. But his standards, probably not. Jesus decided to feed the people and he did it.
Are we called to help people in need? Yes. Are we going to get taken? Yes. Does that mean we should stop trying to help? No. In the end, if we are going to follow Jesus’ pattern of helping, we need to realize that we will get taken at times–but we will also help a lot of people who need help.
May the peace of God be with you.