Wednesday morning, while we were studying the book: The Tangible Kingdom, we stumbled across this quote: “Often ministry efforts focus on getting people to convert to Christianity but Jesus seemed to be much more interested in helping people with what concerns them now.” This quote led to a wonderful discussion about how our new church can help needy people in our community. What a cool conversation to have!
The conversation eventually turned to feeding people in need and then it veered toward the always vexing question of: How to deal with people who abuse and scam the system? This question is very important. I remember serving on the board of a food pantry in South Carolina when one board member said: “I can’t believe we gave three bags of groceries to a family who drove away in a BMW.”
Most Christians I know are torn about this issue. One one hand they desire to love God and love others. Yet, they are frustrated (is that a strong enough word?) with people who scam the local food pantries; cheat the welfare system and abuse the good will of others. I think the real harm is that ‘scammers’ diminish the willingness of people to give to charities.
As someone who helped launch a food pantry in South Carolina, I often wrestle with this question. So, what follows are my latest reflections on how to deal with people who scam the system. I hope some of you will join the conversation. I’d really like to hear from you.
Wrestling with this question, my thoughts turn to the story of Jesus feeding the multitude (Mark 6:30-44). Some say that the real miracle in this story is not that Jesus supernaturally multiplied fish and bread, but rather, the real miracle is that Jesus inspired the crowd to dig deep into their backpacks and purses (I know they didn’t really have packs and purses) and share the little bits of food they were trying to hoard. Thus, the miracle is that if everyone shares – even just a little – scarcity turns into an abundance.
Now if you can accept this scenario, then it’s highly likely that some folks in the crowd probably didn’t share, but instead hid their shinny apple in back packs or their favorite granola bar in their purse. It’s also likely that Jesus – who was nobodies fool – knew that while many were being generous, others would hoard their food. Yet, Jesus insisted that everyone be fed. Even though some folks were scamming the system, nonetheless, Jesus insisted everyone eat.
I think the reason Jesus insisted everyone eat – generous giver and scamming hoarder – is because the miracle is about more than multiplying food or making sure everyone left the party with a full belly. Ultimately this miracle, like all of Jesus’ miracles, is designed to show us what life is like when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. So when Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the multitude he was saying to us: This is what life is like when God’s will is done on earth as it is heaven. God’s will is that when people share generously there is always (and miraculously) more than enough.
I don’t like to see ‘scammers’ abuse the systems and programs designed to care for the poor and needy. But ultimately, I live with the reality that scamming is going to happen. But that reality is not a disincentive because I realize that when I give my time and talent and money to a program that helps others, it changes me; I grow in my generosity; I get a glimpse of people sharing abundantly and (imperfect though it may be) I see God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
I also hope that the very acts of generosity will, somehow, transform the ‘scammers’ into generous givers. I hope so because I’m a scammer who, far too often, hoards God’s gifts instead of shares them freely.