Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Helping

There is no other time of the year in which we are more inclined to gratitude and charity than the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. At no other time are we more frequently asked to help people.  Mailboxes are filled with requests from every kind of charitable organization.  How do we decide whom to help and how much?  How should we think about and relate to the people we help?

In the movie, "The Big Chill," a young attorney tells how she became a public defender because she wanted to help the poor and oppressed. Early on, she was shocked and dismayed to discover that most of the clients she represented were guilty and few were grateful for her efforts to save them. When she realized this, she abandoned her service to this coarser segment of real life.

Many sincere people have experienced this kind of disillusionment when they discovered the people they were trying to help were not humble, innocent or totally honest.  Perhaps you have felt hurt and discouraged by some experience like that.  I have.  Sometimes it makes you feel like you never want to help anyone else when you find out that those  you helped were neither nice, humble, honest, nor grateful.

But there is another side to this whole matter, which is an encouraging thought for those who have a committment to helping people.  It shocked me when I realized that Jesus never taught that helping people should be based on their response.  When he sent his disciples out to help people they were not instructed to minister just to nice, appreciative, and polite people.  The only qualifying condition he gave was that if their ministry was rejected they should shake it off and go on.  It was no surprise that the needy turned out to be sinners just like everyone else.  The Gospel of Luke tells how Jesus was approached by ten lepers who begged to be healed.  After having been healed, only one of the ten bothered to thank Jesus.  Luke observed that he was a Samaritan.  Jesus did take note of this glaring lack of gratitude.  He asked:  "Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Luke 17:17-18).  While Jesus did notice their ingratitude, he did not reverse what he had done for them because they were not  properly grateful.  Jesus was not a fluffy-headed romantic about human nature. His experience of rejection and ingratitude culminated in his ignominious death on the cross at the hands of those he came to save.  Yet, he has never with held his grace from for all of us thoughtless ungrateful sinners.  It is easy to serve those who are  nice, polite and gracious. But, we are called to serve even those who are nasty, smelly, uncouth and ungrateful (enemies included).

In the classical novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, a rural French Bishop,  Bienvenu Myriel of Digne  took in a fugitive, Jean Valjean, and gave him food, friendship and lodging.  At night Valjean ran off with the silverware.  When the police caught Valjean and brought him to the priest, the priest said he had given him the silver, and told him to take the silver candlesticks from the mantel.  When they realized what had happened, Bishop Myriel told his housekeeper: "Madame Magloire, for a long time I have wrongfully been withholding this silver.  It belonged to the poor.  Who was this man?  A poor man, quite clearly."  And when he gave the candlesticks to Valjean, he said:  "Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man. . . .you no longer belong to evil, but to good.  It is your soul I am buying for you.  I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!"

The old priest did not seem dismayed (or surprised) but observed that the man was in desperate need of God's grace, as we all are, and left the matter in God's hands. His attitude was that if we live under the illusion that our ministry is reserved for "good" people only, we will have missed the basic meaning of Christianity.

Frankly, I have always had a tendency to look for avenues of services through stained-glass eyes, but practical experience has taught me that the poor aren't perfect, the needy are not always nice, and many who are hungry never stop to thank those who help them.  Surprise!! Seldom do people have nice problems.  If the needy were as gracious, wise and grateful as we expect them to be, they probably would not need our help. 

When we understand that our side of ministry does not entitle us to moral judgment of the needy,  we will be relieved of a terrible and unrealistic responsibility.

Help somebody today -- whether they are "worthy" in the eyes of society -- or not. Leave the judgment of their response to a higher court.