Thursday, April 26, 2012

Judging the poor (Now be honest, we all do it.)

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the way we respond to the poor and wondering if it’s done in a loving way or a judging way. Mother Theresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” We can't have it both ways. Even when we're giving to the poor, are we giving in love? Or are we giving in judgment?

I have come to the conclusion that, deep down inside, most of us pass judgment on the poor. We may want to help them, and we may feel compassion for them. But there is a part of us that believes they are poor because of something they did. Their poverty is a consequence of the way they have lived their lives.

When we give to the poor we often give the stuff that we don’t want. If you’ve ever sorted through clothing that people have given to the poor, it’s amazing how many pieces of clothing have little price stickers on them. By that I don’t mean price stickers from clothing stores, I mean the kind of homemade price stickers you use for rummage sales. People try to sell their used clothing at a garage sale first and then if nobody else wants it, rather than just throw it out, they’ll give the clothing to the poor. It’s assumed that if someone is poor, they should be grateful for anything they’re given. After all, it’s not like they worked for it, like we have. The really nice stuff is for those who have earned it.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that when we give to the poor, we should give as if we were giving to our own family. Would you want someone from your own family to wear clothing that has been rescued from the trash bin? Would you send your children to school in those clothes? What about the passage in Matthew that tells us whatever we do to help people in need, we’re doing for Jesus. It’s been suggested that we label collection bins for the poor, “Junk for Jesus.” That’s usually what we give.

Even when there is a face to the poor, when someone asks us directly for our help, the judging part of us is always making an assessment. We want to give to the one who is telling us the truth. We want to give to the one who will make the best use of what we’re offering. We want to give to the one who will appreciate it. We don’t want anyone to take advantage of us.

What about the story where there were 10 lepers who came to Jesus for healing? Only one returned to give thanks. I would imagine that people took advantage of Jesus all the time. They came to him for help and their motivation wasn’t always pure. If that story is any indication, we might conclude that 9 out of 10 times Jesus helped people who were just using him. People in need are selfish and sinful just as we all are. But it didn’t seem to matter to Jesus.

Our God is all about grace. He loves us unconditionally, even though we can do absolutely nothing to earn such a gift, he gives us his love freely, with no strings attached. It’s a challenge for us to love like that and a growing edge for all of us.

There’s a marvelous story about Robert De Vincenzo, the famous golfer from Argentina. Once when he won a tournament, he received his check and posed for pictures, and did all the things the victor does after a golf tournament. Then as he was walking alone to his car in the parking lot, he was approached by a young woman. The woman congratulated him on his win and proceeded to tell him about her child, who was seriously ill and near death. She didn’t know how she was going to pay the doctor’s bills and hospital expenses.

De Vincenzo was deeply moved by her story, so he took out a pen and endorsed his winning check for payment to the woman. He handed her the check and told her to make some good days for the baby.

The next week as De Vincenzo was out having lunch a Professional Golf Association official stopped by his table. “Some of the boys in the parking lot last week told me you met a young woman there after you won that tournament.” De Vincenzo nodded.

The official felt he should know the truth and reported, “I have news for you. She’s a phony. She has no sick baby. She’s not even married. She fleeced you, my friend.”

“You mean there is no baby who is dying?” asked De Vincenzo.

“That’s right,” said the official.

De Vincenzo replied, “That’s the best news I’ve heard all week.”

In John’s first letter, he poses a question that forces us to examine our own consciences when it comes to the way we interact with people who need our help. It’s a question that deserves an answer from each person who claims to love God. Not just an answer “in word or speech” but an answer “in truth and action.”

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” 1 John 3:17

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