r m p

THE EPISTLE

 

                     

Charity Cases       

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 needed it.

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 spiritual growth.

Robert M. Price

 

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