E-pistle July 11

When the Least of These His Brothers is a Con Artist

I've been through this a hundred times before, but it still gets to me.  Earlier in the week I received a phone message asking for a return call and telling me that it was a matter of utmost urgency.  The voice was that of an older man and the phone number included an extension.  It turned out that I was correct in assuming that it was a motel room.

Jim, I'll call him, told me his story. He and his wife who was still recovering from heart surgery in May had been evicted from the little house they rented in another part of Bucks County when there had been a foul up with the social security and veteran's disability checks they use to live on month by month.  An agency working with a consortium of churches in Upper Bucks had been able to provide them with two nights lodging at a motel on Street Road, but that's all they could do.  Fortunately, a cousin was willing to take them in, but he asked if they could give just another day before they came over.  So just a one night gap. 

Jim said he called LPC because he had good memories of our kind and caring congregation from those days as a child and teenager when he had been so active in our Sunday School and youth group.  But that was long ago, and he didn't expect anyone to remember him. 

I asked Jim the kind of questions you learn to ask in trying to verify a story.  He seemed sincere and encouraged me when I asked if he would mind if I called the agency that had helped him with the first two nights at the motel.  And, yes, it had been awhile since they had been in church, but they had never stopped praying and knew God as a God who provides and cares.  In fact, they'd try to get back to church just as soon as they got on their feet again.

In the re-telling of Jim's story, I hear the voice of my own cynicism, but I need to tell you that there was a sincerity in Jim's words and a sadness in his situation that made me want to believe him. 

There have been times, maybe too many times, when I've given too quick a no to someone asking for help.  Other times I have, frankly, bought them off – give them what they're asking for so that I can get back to work.  There have been a few, only a very few, times when it has been a humbling privilege clearly to be used by God in reaching out to those who are surely among the least of His brothers and sisters.

I called the helping agency and learned that they had, in fact, helped Jim and his wife.  The intake card noted that they seemed very sincere.  But as I was talking to the volunteer, he discovered that there was another file for Jim.  This was the third time in six months that he had come telling his sad story.  In June he had told them of a cousin who he could stay with.  He just needed a couple of days to get ready for them.

When I called Jim back, I could hear his wife's voice in the background talking on another phone; talking to another pastor, telling the same or maybe a different tale of woe?

Jim is not honest.  At the very least he told me less than the whole truth.  Maybe everything he said was a story told out of thin air. 

I believe I did the right thing with Jim.  I didn't dismiss him out of hand or buy him off.  I listened and I talked and learned what I needed to learn.  I believe I did the right thing as a steward of God's resources and as a pastor.  Certainly there are members of our church who could use $75 to pay some bills and that same $75 would go a long way in the Ukraine or Zimbabwe or Guatemala.

But Jesus didn't qualify the help given the hungry, the sick or the imprisoned.  So what if the hungry are without food because they are poor managers of their resources?  What if the sick are ill from bad lifestyle choices – eating, drinking, and smoking too much?  What if the imprisoned are right where they belong, suffering the consequences of crimes committed?  Are we off the hook, no longer responsible? 

Jesus does not confine his saving grace to those who deserve to be saved.  Should we confine simple acts of assistance to those who deserve it?  Sometimes it causes me to wonder…