Spending last week with a northern Nigerian bishop felt surprisingly like riding around with a mafia godfather.
Wherever we turned there was another person waiting to tell him their troubles and ask him for help. Again and again, I watched him reach into his pocket and peel off a few more layers from his rapidly shrinking wad of well-worn bills. And again and again, I watched another person walk away, relieved of the heavy burden they had been carrying.
What inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.
I confess I had to repeatedly suppress the urge to stop him. I knew that, unlike a mafia don, this “godfather” had a very limited supply with which to meet the overwhelming demand. My forward-thinking mind started fretting about how he would pay his own bills, both current and upcoming. With two kids in college and a mortgage to pay off, he had his own share of financial troubles to worry about.
He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.
He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.
Proverbs 19:17; 28:27
But the fact was that he did have the cash in hand. His bills for this month were covered, and other peoples’ were not. As he continued to distribute his meager resources, he explained his economic reasoning to me. “If I hold this back for my own future need when someone else needs it today, I am not being a faithful steward of God’s resources. If God has supplied enough for me today, He will also be faithful to supply again tomorrow.”
In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.
A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.
Proverbs 21:20; 13:22
Humbled, I still wanted to reason with him. What about wise financial planning for your family’s future? What about ensuring that you don’t run short and then become a burden to others? Wasn’t his simply a non-Western, communally focused approach to resources as opposed to our equally valid (and perhaps economically superior) approach to investing in the future?
But the truth is, something about his childlike faith appeals to me deeply. God took His people through forty years of wilderness economy to train them in the same approach. Each day He supplied enough goods for that day only. There were no viable “leftovers” that could be saved and invested as capital for the next day. And as a result, no one could begin to trust in his own hard work or careful planning. Their only reliable resource was the Lord of the manna.
Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.
Still, my capitalist mind wants to argue, those were exceptional circumstances. Once they settled in the land, were they not responsible to plan wisely and invest accordingly? Weren’t they right to hold back enough seed for next year’s planting?
He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
And again I know that I am avoiding the real issue. Of course it is godly and right to save for future needs. But how often do I use that as a trump card to avoid giving to today’s needs. Ultimately, what inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
And this is where my problem lies. Who is my neighbor? For whom am I financially responsible? Like the Pharisees, I want to erect relational boundaries to protect myself from having to sacrifice my resources to meet other people’s needs. This is why I am tempted to avoid eye contact with the beggar on the street, or to back-peddle on those conversations in which an acquaintance starts to talk about her financial need. I’m afraid of getting caught in a situation where I will feel guilty for not giving.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
But Jesus rips those walls down with His answer: my neighbor is the person I encounter. My responsibility is to redistribute whatever resources God has entrusted to me, first in the care of my immediate family, but also in the care of my extended “family.” And if ensuring tomorrows’ provision is more important to me that sharing todays’, then I may find myself in the same position as the rich man who refused to take responsibility for his neighbor, Lazarus. Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Watching a third-world bishop in action has convicted this first-world lay person. My economically advanced reasons for not loving my neighbor as myself have been unmasked for what they truly are: a self-reliant lack of faith. Of course allowing my time and money to be drained by other people’s needs makes no sense in a godless, survival-of-the-fittest world. But if God really reigns over seed and harvest, investment and returns, will He not look after all my needs?
I am left with no recourse but to go and do likewise.