Summary: Why waste time with negative pepole who are never going to make much progress? Because we follow a shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine grazing to pursue one lost sheep....
‘And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from the region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.”’ (Matthew 15:21-22)
One of the most formative experiences in my career as a priest happened in the first couple of months of my time here at Trinity. It had to do with people coming to the door asking for money.
I instituted a policy early on wherein anybody who had a decent story got $5 out of me. I figured that by keeping the limit reasonably low, I could afford to work on a ‘give to him who asks’ approach, which is surely what Jesus told us to do. It had not occurred to me initially that the low limit might be counterbalanced by high numbers. It did not take long before I had an enormous number of persons coming to claim their $5 on a weekly (if not a daily) basis.
One day I simply ran out. I was using my own money and not the church’s funds, and I simply had nothing left in my wallet. One of the regulars - a particularly obnoxious fellow - came to the door asking for his regular allowance. ‘I don’t have any spare cash today’ I said. ‘That’s OK’ he said. ‘I’ll wait here while you go to the bank and get some more.’ ‘No’ I said. ‘I’m not going to the bank to get some more. I simply can’t help you today.’ He got very shirty at this point. He beckoned me outside and pointed to the sign alongside the door. ‘What does that say’ he said. ‘It says Rectory. This is the church, and you’re the priest of the church, so it’s your job to look after people like me.’
It was a formative moment. I decided at that point that it was not my job to look after him. I also stopped handing out $5 to everyone. In fact, I haven’t handed out a lot of money since. I‘ve given out food, clothing, and other articles in abundance, but hardly any more money. Why? Because I can’t afford to, and because I’ve decided that it’s not, fundamentally, my job.
Maybe that was the wrong decision. I know it makes me look like a hard bastard whenever I turn someone away, and for the most part I do try to refer people to other welfare agenies in the area when they are looking for help with their bills. Even so, I never feel quite right about hiding behind a ’no cash on premises’ policy either, which is why I regularly fail to keep to it.
The problem is that when you don’t have a policy to hide behind, the only alternative is to try to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving cases. This is difficult, as it involves checking out often long and involved stories. And even when you can check out the story, it still involves passing judgment - deciding who deserves mercy and who does not - and that’s not something I’m really sure I’m in a position to do!
It’s easy for me to say ‘you don’t deserve financial assistance because you put all your money through the pokies’, but even it it’s true, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the guy or girl may be genuinely hungry and in need of sustenance. Maybe this is the best way to teach them a lesson! But who am I to make that call? And who am I to know what led that poor person to pour all their money into the pokies in the first place?
Even if I know that the guy at my door who is asking for $5 to buy a hamburger, is in fact an alcoholic who really wants the money to buy a beer, who am I to say that this man with a serious alcohol dependency does not, in a very real sense, need a beer more than I need the $5. Indeed, who am I to say that he doesn’t need the beer more than he needs a hamburger?
We find ourselves making these judgements all the time - between needs and wants, between deserving and undeserving, between good guys and bad guys even though we know that our judgments are at best based on only a partial knowledge of a situation, and at worst are based more on cultural biases and prejudices, than on spiritual values.
No. It is far easier to work with a simple iron-clad policy that gives us a straightforward way of determining who, if anybody, receives assistance. If only the New Testament gave us a clear policy. Well ... we may have just found one - if not a full-blown policy, at least a passage from which such a policy could be formed. It’s all here in Matthew chapter 15 - the story of a woman whom Jesus considered to be unworthy of his assistance!