As has happened many times after I have given a talk about the Body of Christ’s responsibility to care for their brothers and sisters experiencing impoverished and dehumanizing conditions, I was asked to answerthose questions — the ones in my experience that are always the first to be asked the moment I stop speaking.
“How will I know I have given enough? How does the church balance financial responsibility with service to the poor? Where do we draw the line?”
These questions always come, sometimes spoken in a curious tone by a person whose heart is being convicted, sometimes in an angry accusing tone insinuating I must hate prosperity, sometimes privately as a whisper in my ear or in a personal email filled with insinuations about my sanity. What a preposterous proposal, that the Body of Christ in any particular location should be the first resource to its own community for spiritual, physical, and emotional well being! Don’t I know that such a mission is naïve and impossible to achieve? Most recently it was phrased like this: “I love this idea, but it is difficult to see benevolence funds go towards someone's electric bill when they smell like they smoked five packs of cigs before meeting with us; what do we do?”
Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus answers a similar inquiry in this way: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”
And then, being Jesus, he follows this question up with a curious parable, saying:
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18: 21-35, NIV)
I believe in financial responsibility, but I also believe that at times we use the phrase “financial responsibility” the way the wicked servant chose to be selfish with his fellow servants, ignoring the great mercy that has been extended to us in service of our chosen self-serving priority. Individually and corporately, we the church often over-extend ourselves taking on "responsibilities" to pay which are in fact value choices (the latest electronics, homes, furniture, retirement accounts etc.), which we give priority over opportunities for generosity. These value choices aren't sinful in themselves, but if we individually and together as the church find ourselves spending more on self-generated operating costs and overhead competing with our generosity to care for our neighbors near and far, then our financial choices are not simply acting in financial responsibility, they are value-based choices to serve ourselves in place of others. Like the servant with the cancelled debt, we are at times are focused upon watching out for ourselves, forgetting that our wealth and blessings are a result of God’s mercy, not exclusively from our own skill and labor. Like Peter we seek a rule for how many times must I endure helping someone else’s need, when the gift of Christ’s mercy is boundless, and so should be our response.
If we truly seek to be Christ’s Body on earth our question should be: In light of Christ’s mercy to me, what is needed in this circumstance to show God’s love and emulate God’s character?
I am advocating that individual Christians and church communities stop thinking of serving others as a line in a budget of many competing priorities, and begin to think about emulating God’s grace as central to the mission of the Body, and around which all other decisions are made. Not, “How much is enough” but instead, “How is grace to be expressed here?”
I am not advocating that churches pay every bill in their community. Financial benevolence is a critical part of extending grace, but is in itself inadequate, and at times not graceful at all. We must meet the “other” as Christ would meet them. We must see their needs as God sees their needs, important and deserving of our attention and grace. Sometimes that need is to hear the Gospel message and that others’ worth is in their identity as creations in God’s image. Often paying an individual’s light bill can be an important expression of the Gospel of grace. Many times it is more than a single late bill that people need met. Sometimes meeting that bill in a context of relational support is the pathway to meeting their deeper spiritual and emotional needs. Sometimes a provision of money would unlovingly support an addiction and other support is needed. The need may be community encouraged and supported addiction treatment, or ongoing personal mentoring on budgeting. The need may ask more personal risk from the Body, such as a real friendship. Or it may be the provision of a job by a Christian businessperson, giving an individual a chance to move beyond a felony record or a substance problem, and working patiently give them time for a full recovery. Grace may require multiple acts of care, without counting. Grace never asks “How much is too much?” Instead grace asks “What is needed?” May we do the same.
Tara C. Samples, Ph.D. is a grateful disciple of Jesus. She has worked as a Professional Counselor, is a Professor and is currently completing her postdoctoral residency in Clinical Psychology. She believes that social justice is the responsibility of the Body of Christ which is called to speak for those whose voices are not heard by the powerful. Tara is a wife, a mother of two creative young girls and an advocate against injustice, violence, oppression and sexual exploitation in the church and in the world.
Image: Man asking for help, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com