What would Jesus say about them?

Photographs of emaciated children staring pitifully from magazine covers trouble North American Christians. We know we have a moral, even a financial, obligation to the poverty-stricken. We cannot ignore a plain command of Jesus: “Give to him who begs from you” (Matt. 5:42).

We excuse our lack of generosity to the poor in varied ways. But one that crops up repeatedly is what I call the “good stewardship rationale.” Christians, we say, are to be good stewards of their money; therefore we should not give too liberally to those who may misuse our gift.

Images spring to mind of waste: a “wino” buying himself another bottle, and government housing degenerating into slums. Nearly everyone who has lived in a Third World country can produce a story of generosity misused. In the light of such experiences, we conclude it makes no sense to give too liberally to the poor unless they learn to spend responsibly.

I now believe that this rationale, which I used to subscribe to myself, is based on several misconceptions:

“The Poor Are Less Responsible”

This rationale assumes that we members of the middle and upper-middle class are more responsible with resources than the poor.

But have we not been, for example, less than responsible with one of our greatest resources, creation? In pursuit of the benefits of a rapidly expanding economy, we have been leveling forests, polluting lakes and streams, eliminating entire species, and draining the earth of its precious energy.

The poor often are criticized for using their food money unwisely: buying potato chips, pop, and candy instead of bread, milk, and fruit. But many of the poor simply are unaware of the basics of nutrition. Those with no excuse are people like you and me. How many reading this article are having a cup of coffee? The last time you grabbed a bite to eat, what did you have? A cookie? A doughnut? Many of us (including the author) are overweight primarily because we eat too much food low in nutrients yet high in fat and sugar. We know better. So to say that we should not give generously to the poor until they show responsibility is sheer hypocrisy.

“They Should Learn Responsibility First”

The good stewardship rationale’s assumption is that we should give money only to those who have learned to use it responsibly. But does not our experience contradict this?

When I was eight or nine years old, for example, I was paid an allowance for performing certain chores. Because my great passion was buying and trading baseball cards, I often spent all my weekly earnings for them. Even then I frequently sensed I was wasting my money (although had I kept those cards, I could now turn a tidy profit!) Also, as I reflect on how I spent the earnings from the first jobs I held in high school, I regret the way I squandered my money. But only by having money to spend did I discover in a meaningful way that it was limited, hard to come by, and must be managed carefully.

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“Like The Parable Says—”

The good stewardship rationale contradicts the teachings of Jesus. Yes, we may read about not casting our pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6), but the context shows that Jesus is talking primarily about his teachings: we should not treat them lightly nor give them to others until they are ready. Nor does refering to the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) help, for this rationale is used only by the third steward: out of fear of misusing his talent he does nothing, and is therefore condemned by his master. So the good steward by our definition turns out to be the parable’s bad steward!

“But It Is Different Today”

The good stewardship rationale teeters when confronted with Jesus’ repeated interaction with the poor of his day. We somehow imagine that all the poor folk Jesus helped immediately reformed, becoming hard-working citizens, putting braces on their children’s teeth, and paying for their college education. We cannot imagine that some prostitutes went back to their trade, or that a few, when freed from the bondage of pharisaical laws, morally abused their new freedom.

But such abuse was inevitable. Only one leper in ten bothered to return thanks to Jesus (Luke 17:12–19). Could this account illustrate the general response of those he healed? Jesus at one point got fed up with his generation because it evidenced no appreciation of what his ministry was about (Matt. 11:16–18). Jesus’ repeated warnings to his followers against falling back into sin make sense only if some were doing just that.

Finally, Jesus himself, the supreme I gift of God, was abused and nailed to a cross to die. Although this murder was planned by the wealthy and powerful, it was the poor who shouted, “Crucify him … Crucify him!” (Mark 15:6–15). Although Jesus knew the poor were abusing his love and kindness, although he knew they would turn against him, he continued to give himself fully to them.

“More Should Not Be Given To Those Who Are Wasteful”

When we examine our own lives, the good stewardship rationale finally collapses. As I grow older, I see more clearly that each moment of my day is lived by the grace of God. So often I have been entrusted with a responsibility in his name, and so frequently I have failed. I have misused a gift or wasted an opportunity. Yet amazingly, God has always assigned me another task. If God were commited to the good stewardship rationale, he long ago would have refused to give gifts and opportunities to any of us.

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Not to give to the poor on the basis of the good stewardship rationale is to accept a devilish deception. Of course, given our finite financial resources, we must give to the needy with discretion; but that never should prevent us from giving. The possibility that the poor will have difficulty in utilizing an abundance of largess is no excuse for giving only in piecemeal, cautious fashion.

Biblical stewardship entails a major risk. Our generous gift may be misused by those who receive it. But how can we justify not taking this relatively small risk when our Lord took the much greater risk that cost him his life?

I believe the same God who gave life and power to his Son who was abused and killed, can and does do the same with our money when apparently it has been squandered. First, of course, we must give to the poor as Jesus did: sacrificially. God grant us the grace of obedience.


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