Discernment seemed to be something Jesus possessed more than others, but he was human. He took chances on people that didn’t turn out as he hoped.
However, the gospel writers do not record him saying, “What a waste” after not getting the results he envisioned. Certainly, Jesus’ model of and call for compassion can sometimes get his followers fooled.
One of my campus ministry interns in the early 1990s was uncharacteristically late to our weekly supervisory meeting. So, I knew something was up.
He began his explanation by telling me how he was near the square in Marietta, Georgia, and met a man in desperate need of money. The intern was barely into his description of the scene when I picked up the narrative.
“Had his daughter just died and he needed money for a bus ticket to Alabama?”
The young seminarian (now a pastor) dropped his head. “Yes, that’s what he told me.”
I explained that the man’s daughter had apparently died every day for many months now. It was a well-rehearsed and well-executed scam.
Our session that day turned into a deeper discussion about compassion, discernment, risk-taking and wiser ways of being helpful. (Like offering to purchase the bus ticket.) However, I advised him to not let that one disappointing situation turn him so far toward caution that compassion is withheld.
Anyone who seeks to emulate Jesus will likely get taken advantage of on occasion. And Jesus likely experienced that as well.
This long-ago episode resurfaced in my mind recently when reading an online post in which a man told of being in the checkout line behind a woman at Aldi’s whose credit card was rejected and she didn’t have the cash. He graciously paid for her groceries.
A woman behind him in line said, “You know that was a scam, don’t you?” He surmised that $18 worth of food at a discount grocer was worth the risk.
She likely really needed it. More tragic, it seems, would be to lose one’s sense of generosity out of fear of being used.
Of course, there are ways to give with more assurance. Identifying, supporting and referring people to trusted organizations is one good way. But we all encounter moments in which our response is more immediate. We simply take a chance that our goodness and someone’s need are worth the risk.
My next campus ministry assignment was at Georgia Tech in downtown Atlanta. Student residents managed our on-campus center during evenings and weekends when there were no programs.
One resident graciously gave some food from our weekday luncheon program to someone who saw “Baptist” on our sign and thought, “Those people sure know how to eat.”
Word spread on the street— to the point that it needed to be addressed. Our ministry was directed toward the campus community—not a citywide feeding program.
Other nearby ministries provided food, shelter and other services. So, we created an information sheet that listed those offerings. Then, we further encouraged students to become involved in those ministries.
Yet, there were times to make an exception.
Anyone who extends their hand to a person in need has been disappointed at times. The results were not what we hoped would transpire. But then, insisting on particular outcomes would be conditional compassion.
I can’t say for sure that Jesus got scammed. But he didn’t always get the results he desired.
The gospel writer John, after recording some of Jesus’ stronger teachings, notes: “From this time on, many of his disciples turned back. They no longer followed him” (John 6:66). Seeing this rejection, Jesus asked his 12 closest disciples: “You don’t want to leave also, do you?” (v.67)
Jesus didn’t seem to check out every motive or follow up on the effective use of his generosity. Not everyone expressed gratitude or signed up to be one of his followers.
So, in a sense, Jesus was repeatedly taken advantage of by those who experienced his goodness but did not choose to emulate it. Not naiveté, but selflessness was his modus operandi.
And that is what he calls his followers to be and do. If Jesus taught anything it is that following him involves risks.
Though imperfect, there is a certain maturity needed in taking risks in one’s generosity without being gullible in one’s giving.
Many television-centered ministries (and others) rely on manipulating viewers/listeners, especially older adults. They fill these shysters’ coffers and fund their extravagant lifestyles with donations from much-needed, limited income.
Such abuse deserves our harshest criticism in this world and the possibility of some form of damnation in the next.
I don’t fully understand what Jesus meant when calling his followers to “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). But it does seem discernment and generosity are both important to our faithfulness.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.