I am a Jesus man. By this I mean he is the principal influence in my life. However, some of the things he asks for I simply cannot do.
In particular, I refer to Luke 6.29, 30f – If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
Over the years, and again quite recently, the church office staff call me to come to the church. The problem being a distressed stranger who is making them distressed. They have no idea how to respond. Occasionally, by the time I arrive, our staff person is in tears.
In my experience the person (stranger) is always male. They are all story tellers. Their story usually involves family, and often children, and is always terribly sad. Our staff person tries to suggest a solution – prayer, counselling, emergency shelter but finds none of these will meet the need. By this point, sometimes shaking with anxiety, they call me.
What I do with this person runs contrary to the commands of Jesus. Before they even start with their story (I have heard variations of their story many times before), I tell them. “I can give you $30 of petrol (I will pump this) or $20 cash and that’s it”. Most of them take the $20. Occasionally I they opt for gasoline, but they are always hoping for money as well. The deal done they leave, and I never see them again.
I was not always like that. In previous years I have prayed, read the Bible and counseled with these individuals. But in the end, it always came down to the same thing. They wanted money and they wanted it now!
My most memorable encounter happened in the rural town of Paeroa. Around 4.30 on a Friday afternoon a sad but engaging man entered our church. He needed money to make a journey of 140ks. His need was urgent. He told me his child had died and he needed to take the dead child to the family burial ground (tribal). Sensing my disbelief, he told me the child’s body was in the boot (trunk) of his car. He invited me to view the body. I declined. At this point he knew he had me. So now I was committed to find a way to urgently send him on his way. The man was Maori and the town of Paeroa has several Maori Maraes (tribal headquarters). I had heard they had welfare funds. When I raised this prospect, he told me there was no hope of assistance from them. “I am not of their tribe”.
I pumped $30 petrol into his car and bought him some food for his journey.
I thought I would never see him again. I was wrong. Mid-morning on the following Monday he was back again. He told me he had been unable to bury his child in the tribal cemetery because his family were in dispute with his home tribe and they would not allow the burial. “The body of my boy is still in the boot. Would you like to take a look?” Once again, I declined his invitation.
As his home was far away, once again he wanted money for food and petrol. Sensing my reluctance, he started quoting Bible verses at me. I asked where he obtained his Bible knowledge. “From my Church”, he replied. I asked which church? “The Baptist church in my home town. I am personal friend of the minister” – mentioning him by name. Suddenly I could see away of escape. “We have a Baptist church in this town, and I am sure they will help you”. I drew a simple map to the minister’s house and adding the pastor’s name and phone number and sent him on his way. He was reluctant to leave but he knew I had trumped him.
I am not at ease with my hard-hearted approach. However, this is the way I rationalize it.
In Matthew 10.16 Jesus prepares his disciples for their work. “I am sending you out like lambs into a pack of wolves. Be wise as snakes and as innocent as doves”. Doves symbolize peace, gentleness and love. Without doubt this is to be a characteristic of his followers. But he modifies this with the term ‘wise as snakes’. The meaning here is to be flexible and alert – to move swiftly to escape traps or dangers. Jesus did this all through his ministry – for instance using parables to condemn the people who confronted him.
In my experience, the people who desperately need help hardly ever ask for it. Their determination to cope and/or their pride keep them making the most of the little they have.
If we allow ourselves to be stripped of our shirts (resources) by sharp-witted rogues we will have nothing left to share with those who really need it. Clearly to follow Jesus means that we must view our personal and church money as resources to be shared. As unselfish, gentle doves we are to share everything with those in need. But as smart, quick witted snakes we are to discern the truth of every situation and act accordingly.
This is how I justify my guarded response to those who press me for my shirt and the church’s money. I know it doesn’t measure up to the black and white commands of Jesus but it is the best I can manage. And as in all things, I trust in his forgiveness.
As for the man with a body in the boot I will never know if this was a confidence trick. I suspect it was. And I also doubt that he ever visited the Baptist pastor.