Generous giving is among the highest virtues; wise giving secures its benefits.
As he came over the brow of the small hill he saw the beaten and bloodied man lying at the edge of the road. The Samaritan hurried to him and tended the man’s injuries as well as he could before carefully helping him onto the back of his mule and setting off for the nearby inn (Luke 10:25-37, paraphrased).
Fast-forward two thousand years. Today the Good Samaritan would probably call emergency services and help the injured man as much as possible until police and ambulance personnel arrived.
Thankfully, such things are rare occurrences in most people’s lives. But what of the more frequent times when many of us are confronted by lesser situations of someone in need? You know. As you walk out of a shopping center, someone approaches you with “Could you spare a few dollars?”
We have seen the signs many people carry, pulling at heartstrings from every possible direction: “Homeless.” “Veteran.” “Injured.” “Hungry.” “Please help — God bless.” Some may reflect genuine necessity, but police officers and social welfare agents know that for a good number of people, this is just a business. They are not truly destitute. You know this, too, but how are we to judge a given case? What is the Christian’s right response when asked for help in such circumstances?
Caring and caution
Dozens of scriptures show our responsibility to those in need. Certainly Jesus cared for such people (John 13:29b) and commanded that we care also (Luke 11:41). No scripture is perhaps clearer on this aspect of love than 1 John 3:17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
But God’s Word is not divorced from reality. It shows that people sometimes do feign appearances for their own purposes (Joshua 9) and confirms the possibility that some who request aid may be doing so because they do not want to work. The apostle Paul stresses the unworthiness of such a cause and that “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
The wise Samaritan acknowledges both these perspectives, being caring yet careful not to waste the ability to help those truly in need. This approach is actually implicit in 1 John 3:17 if we look closely. Notice first that John’s reference to “a brother in need” puts his statement in the context of assisting fellow believers (see also Romans 15:26 and elsewhere), though the principle can, of course, be extended to any human brother or sister requiring help.
But the two key words in this verse are sees and needs. The word sees clearly indicates that we have evidence of the person’s condition. We are not bound to accept someone’s statement of lack without “seeing” its reality. Even more important, the word need that John uses (chreian) clearly means such things as food and clothing — items that aren’t frivolous. The two concepts actually go hand in hand, because real need is usually clearly visible, as it was to the Samaritan.
Wisdom and care
When we are asked for help and the situation seems genuine, a primary response might be to call appropriate assistance. Police and other services are trained and prepared to offer a hand to individuals in difficult circumstances. But if the situation does not appear to warrant this, we might ask ourselves, Is this person really in need? Will any help we give be put to good use?
Sadly, when offered food or items of clothing, many asking for help will decline the offer, as they really want cash for such things as alcohol or drugs. We should consider the moral responsibility of not enabling an addiction whenever cash is requested. We also owe it to the needy to be good stewards of our resources and employ them wisely.
Today the wise Samaritan can often do more good by contributing even small amounts to worthwhile charities that carefully administer their aid. The most desperate needs are often far from where we may be. But even then we wisely choose charities that have been carefully screened or developed by groups we trust, like our churches. Before donating to other charities, the Internet-savvy Samaritan may want to check some of the online sites run by monitoring organizations (such as charitynavigator.org) to verify their ratings and use of funds. Many “good causes” spend a great deal of their donations on overhead, and some may use funds for purposes that address nonessentials. We can magnify the good we do by choosing charities wisely, perhaps volunteering time with good ones, and by praying for the success of those that serve people with genuine wants. We should also realize that sometimes the best help we can give is not tangible (Matthew 11:5b; Acts 3:1-6).
None of this is to say that we should pull back from physically assisting others who don’t have adequate means of support. Belief devoid of willingness to help those in real need is a poor excuse for true religion, as James so clearly shows (James 2:16; Isaiah 58:7). Some people choose to err on the side of kindness when asked for help, even if they feel they are being taken advantage of. Some carry a few easily accessed dollar bills separate from billfold or purse for legitimate cases.
But we should not feel swayed by words of “need” written on cardboard signs, or by unsubstantiated requests for cash. Nothing in God’s Word urges us to give to those who make a living simply by saying they are in need. Everything in God’s Word shows that we should not hesitate to help where help is truly required. We must be wise Samaritans and careful stewards of our available resources if we are to assist others to the fullest extent of our ability.BA