Every year around this time, giving focuses – as it should! – on the needy.
This is certainly in line with what Scripture commands, which is to be generous to a fault with those in need and to share from our greater resources with those who have little. As a result, narratives and images of Christian giving often focus on those we perceive to be “deserving”: those poor enough, earnest enough, innocent enough, good enough, and longing enough, to merit largesse.
A great example of this I’ve seen in the news recently is the story of a homeless man who gave his last $20 to help a young woman who’d run out of gas. Touched by his generosity, she got to know him a bit and started a fundraiser on his behalf that has raised over $300,000. It’s a heartwarming story, and it’s heartwarming because – at least in part – we deem this man’s act of self-sacrifice, the giving away of what little he had to someone else, as “deserving” of good in return.
But what about the undeserving?
What about the sour, cranky people? The ones who can’t spare enough in spirit to bite off a “thank you” or have an air of entitlement about everything they receive? The people who manipulate, lie, and deceive? The people who have made bad choices and bad decisions? The ones who only show up when there’s something they can get out of it? The obnoxious people who don’t behave well in public and whose manner makes us cringe? The ones we perceive as being somehow undeserving of help or assistance? What about them?
Because the truth is that they’re out there, too. People who are in need – but also irritating. People who are in need – but profoundly ungrateful. People who are in need – but whose behavior makes us want to avert our eyes. People who are in need – and who leverage their circumstances to take advantage of others. It happens. We live in a fallen world, and no one is free of sin.
“Give to the one who asks you,” Jesus instructs in Matthew 5:42. The verse is part and parcel of a series of commands most believers know by heart: if someone forces you to go one mile with him, go two. Do not resist an evil person. Turn the other cheek. Love the unlovable. Love your enemies.
Always, always go above and beyond.
We see in Scripture that Jesus’ behavior exemplified His words. He did not discriminate in the company He kept. He ate dinner with His friends and disciples, but also with Pharisees out to trick and trap Him. He washed the feet of Judas knowing full well what Judas meant to do. He answered the questions of all who approached Him. And when He fed crowds and taught multitudes, He did not separate out the most deserving from the least.
How can we behave any differently?
Look, I get it. Giving to sour, nasty, manipulative, ungrateful, unkind people is not the fun sort of giving to do. We want to enjoy our giving. We want to get a warm, fuzzy feeling from it. We like to know the people on the receiving end are thankful and that it means something to them. We want to know they are justified in their need, profuse in their gratitude, and pure in their motives.
But we hardly ever are. We come to God selfish and demanding with a list of wants – and often that’s the only time we ever bother to show up at all. We complain when we don’t get what we asked or, if we do get it, we complain it wasn’t quickly enough. We forget to say thank you. We plead and cajole and try to manipulate God into doing our bidding. And in spite of all of that, we are forgiven and loved, and we have our needs met in Him.
I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who taught me that Jesus’ mandate was to give – to the deserving and the undeserving both. As believers, it’s up to us to carry that mandate forward. I’m not asking you to rubber-stamp bad behavior, or to enable it. If you don’t feel comfortable giving money, then give in some other way. You have options. Give wisely. But don’t withhold from giving. Because what we must not do is say “I will only give to the people who are deserving.” How can we, when we are the undeserving?
This holiday season, absolutely act with mercy and generosity toward those in need who require it. If a heartwarming story or the image of a shoeless little boy moves you to contribute in some way, that’s wonderful – and I pray that contribution is blessed. But in our desire to help “the least of these,” we do ourselves a disservice if we only define “the least of these” as those we find most personally endearing or worthy.