The other day a friend told me how he had
been made the patsy for a clever scam. At his office he received what seemed
like a call from the office downstairs. Apparently one of this man's drivers had
been stranded nearby and needed $60.00 to get the rig towed. His name was
Thus-&-So. Would my friend be willing to supply the money till the next day,
when the man downstairs could reimburse him? Sure he would. Minutes later here
came the stranded driver. He knew the name of his benefactor as well as that of
the man in the office below. He signed a receipt form and was on his way, sixty
dollars in hand. The next day my friend spoke to the man downstairs only to
discover he had made no such call the previous night and had no such driver.
Someone had done his homework to pull an effective scam. And my friend, for all
his willingness to help, had played the sucker--or had he?
According to our Jewish and Christian
traditions, as I understand them, he had acted admirably. The foolishness was on
the part of the one who had taken advantage. Wickedness is always foolish. It
will redound on the heads of those who perpetrate it, though often the
punishment is so severe, the self-degradation of moral frostbite, that the
sufferer from it no longer even knows that he suffers.
A few days ago, I caught a man to whom I
had recently given car fare a number of times lifting supplies from a closet
here in the church. I told him that this sort of unilateral charity was not
welcome. His excuse was that the Human Needs Ministry would not give him
anything. Thinking he might be ineligible because of some technicality, I looked
into this, only to find he was a client in good standing and had received
groceries just days before!
Charity cheaters are nothing new. The
Talmud and the New Testament both address the question,
and I think these old answers need to be heard today, when news of charity
embezzling and relief dollars which never reach their destination are tempting
some people to despair of charitable giving altogether.
I wonder if this very danger is not in
view in a saying of Rabbi Abbahu, "We must show charity
even to the deceivers, for if it were not for them, a man might be asked for
alms by a poor man, and he might refuse and be punished." The sometimes
circuitous logic of the ancient rabbis makes the point of the saying uncertain,
but I can think of a couple of interesting possibilities.
No one can give alms to everyone who asks
without eventually becoming needy oneself. Can it be that Rabbi Abbahu means
that while the charity-fakers do indeed swell the ranks of the askers, they also
by the same token reduce the chances that a given refusal by you will incur
guilt? The more charity-frauds there are, the less the likelihood that you will
have withheld a contribution from someone who really
But I wonder if the Hebrew text might
bear a somewhat different reading. Should we take "if not for them" to mean, in
more general terms, "otherwise"? That is, we must show
charity even to those who might prove to be deceivers; otherwise we would grow
so suspicious and fearful of being made fools, that we would no longer extend
alms to anyone, and would thus neglect the truly needy along with the frauds. I
believe it is so.
We must do as the Gospel of Luke says,
"If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?
For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again. But love your
enemies, and do good, and lend, despairing of no man, and your reward
will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the
ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful."
Ecclesiastes 11:1 advises: "Cast your
bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days." The point seems to
be that in the case of generosity, what goes around comes around. When you are
in need others will more quickly think to come to your aid if they know you as a
helper of others. But don't pass by that initial,
intriguing image too quickly: "Cast your bread upon the waters."
You have no idea where the waters will
take it. You need not trouble yourself overmuch over its destination. A general
benevolence is recommended here, and you cannot predict
what good effects it will have. There are good things your charity can do that
you cannot foresee, and they would not get done if every act of almsgiving were
a clear shot directly from giver to intended recipient or result. Chance opens
up a free zone of possibility where anything may happen. So don't worry if you
cannot account for every cent and where it went.
Ever heard someone curse at all those
"Cadillac-driving welfare cheats"? They had the equivalent in the old days, too.
Here's another anecdote from the Talmud: "Samuel left his father, and halted by
some huts of the poor. He heard them say: 'Shall we eat today off vessels of
gold or of silver?' He went back and told his father, who said, 'It is incumbent
on us to show gratitude to the deceivers among the poor.'"
But why be grateful to them? For one
simple reason: they are affording you an opportunity for moral growth. The very
act of giving to others is a weaning of the soul away from Mammon, a loosening
of too-tight heart and purse strings. True, it's a shame that the money's not
necessarily going where you wanted it to, but that's looking in only one of the
relevant directions. It is at least going away from you, and that's where some
of it must go sometimes, lest your possessions come to possess you.
So why should my friend have felt like a
chump? I say he should simply have felt sad for the character weakness of the
one who lied to get what an honest admission of need might have gotten him
anyway. Even so, as charitable givers, you have every right to expect that your
dollars should go to the needy to whom you direct them. But don't let the
regrettable antics of charity cheaters turn you off to charitable giving. You
will only be compounding the problem by cheating yourself of an opportunity for
Robert M. Price