Matt was volunteering at the church’s food pantry. He was between jobs. He was living with his parents until something opened up. No panic, just mild anxiety until he landed suitable work. But this stretch of unemployment did raise his level of sensitivity to the needs of others. The least he could do was offer some of his idle time to help people much worse-off than himself.
His assigned task for the day was to carry food boxes from the pantry out to the recipients’ cars in the parking lot. It was gratifying work, helping people in need – especially when they smiled and expressed their appreciation. Some of the recipients seemed to know more about the system than he did, taking the initiative to fill their own boxes with the approved allocation of food, then carrying their own provisions out to their cars. They obviously knew the staff and regular volunteers, some of whom they greeted by name. Others, however, appeared to be a bit embarrassed and avoided eye-contact with Matt. Almost everyone thanked him, however, as he carried their boxes out to the parking lot and placed them into their vehicles.
On food distribution Tuesday, the parking lot had a very different appearance from that way it looked on Sundays. Smoke-belching vans with bald tires, tired cars with missing hubcaps, pick-ups with loud rusted-out mufflers – today’s visitors were obviously surviving on the margins. It felt good to Matt to be extending kindness to people so obviously in need – very satisfying. Until… until one of the recipients he was helping led the way to a late model Lexus parked a comfortable distance away from the other well-worn vehicles. As they approached the car, the owner, a well-dressed middle-aged woman, removed a remote key from her purse and popped open the trunk. She was polite enough, Matt thought as he placed the box into her trunk, but she hardly seemed like a person in need of a free handout.
The incident troubled Matt. He tried to dismiss it from his mind. Probably an isolated case. Maybe the lady had problems that he didn’t know about. But then it happened again. A man in a nearly new Mustang GT convertible drove up and came into the food pantry. He was well dressed and sported an expensive watch. Matt could hardly restrain himself from confronting the man as he lugged a full box of food to the convertible and deposited it on the rear seat (leather upholstery, no less!).
“How do you keep people from abusing the system?” Matt asked the pantry director when the last customer had left and most of the shelves were bare. “It’s an honor system,” the director responded. “If people say they have a need for food, we take them at their word.” Matt wondered what need the Lexus and Mustang owners claimed to have. Somehow the system didn’t seem all that honorable to him. Oh well, didn’t Jesus say we should give to anyone who asks? And the church was doing this in Jesus’ name. So it must be OK, Matt told himself.
But why did it continue to bother him? Shouldn’t there be some form of accountability? He finally decided to look it up in the Bible and see if that’s what Scripture really said. Sure enough, there it was, plain as day, in Matthew’s gospel, right there among all the other Kingdom teachings in the sermon on the mount. Nothing about responsible giving, nothing about setting limits, nothing about avoiding dependency. Just simple, straight-forward instructions to give, with no strings attached. “Give to anyone who asks.” Well, his church had it right. Apparently.
It was on a Sunday morning several months later during the 11 o’clock worship service that this free food issue surfaced once again in Matt’s mind. The scripture reading from John’s gospel was the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. The miracle of providing abundant free food for the large crowd seemed to confirm the church’s pantry policy of giving free food for anyone with an out-stretched hand. But John’s account of what happened the following day – the day after the mass feeding – is what arrested Matt’s attention. Word had spread rapidly about the over-abundance of free food Jesus had provided, and folks from all over the region flooded in to get their share. Rumors circulated that this Jesus might actually be the long awaited messiah who would provide a permanent supply of food for everyone – like Moses did for 40 years in the wilderness. But day two turned out to be a colossal disappointment. No more free food, Jesus announced. Only spiritual food, for those who were spiritually hungry. The crowd was obviously displeased. They argued, grumbled and, when it was apparent that no food was forthcoming, reluctantly dispersed. For the handful of close followers that remained, the lesson was clear: a free feeding program is not an optimal method for proclaiming His Kingdom.
Matt couldn’t help wondering if the church’s food pantry crowd would continue to come if spiritual food was the only hand-out being offered. He doubted it. And at that moment the issue that had been confusing him for months came clear in his mind: free food (free anything) indiscriminately distributed, diminishes dignity, encourages dependency, and invites greed. Jesus had cut off these undesirable consequences before they had a chance to become a habit. But wasn’t the church’s food pantry actually perpetuating these very things? The faces of folks Matt had assisted played through his memory – the embarrassment of the first-time visitors, the entitlement of regular recipients, the greed of abusers of the system. Surely there must be a better way to extend compassion.
Matt had never worn a WWJD wristband, but at this moment it seemed like an important question – what would Jesus do? More digging into the Gospels. Yes, Jesus did treat the crowds to a feast on one, maybe two, occasions but He certainly didn’t make a practice of it. His compassion was expressed more often in personal, hands-on ways, like touching sick and blind and crippled and diseased (even dead!) people and restoring their health. And He explained what His Kingdom was like by telling lots of colorful illustrations. He seemed to value fellowship a great deal – sharing meals with all sorts of interesting people and spending quality time with His close friends. And children – He enjoyed children. What would it look like, Matt wondered, if the church modelled its compassion ministries after Jesus’ example?
A health clinic maybe? Shared meals? Story-time for children so their mom’s could have a morning out? An occasional party or feast? What about measuring compassion by the level of healthy relationships established between church folk and the people they serve? Of course, changes like this would require Herculean effort… and expense… and time… and lots of personal involvement in people’s lives. Probably best to stick with the food pantry.
Thanks anyway, Matt.