It’s been a few years back. I was either pregnant or had my baby daughter with me. I stood at the counter, getting ready to pay for an armful of Christmas purchases at the health food store. I looked in my purse. I looked in my wallet. I patted my pockets. I felt in my coat.
No debit card.
That’s an awful feeling. Especially when there are other customers in line.
“I am SO sorry,” I told the woman at the counter. I prepared to put back my items and slink quietly away. Then the woman behind me spoke.
“Hey, I’ve got it. I’ve got hers.”
“What?” I said, panicking a little. “It’s too much. I have too much.”
“I’m going to pay for it,” she said. “Merry Christmas.”
She bought 40-some dollars worth of treats and soaps. I never saw her before, have never seen her since.
A meme has been floating around Facebook this week on the topic of paying for other people’s stuff. Each person relates their story about doing good for someone in a tight spot, but it goes a little differently:
“I was in line at Aldi, and this girl with two toddlers in front of me had her card declined,” said the storyteller. “She looked so sad and said, ‘let me call my husband real quick,’ and it was only 18 dollars, so I just paid for it … as she walked off, the lady behind me said, ‘You know that was probably a scam right?’ and like, even if it was, like what a sad scam right? Eighteen dollars at the Aldi. If you’re scamming me for some Tyson chicken and apple juice and cauliflower then just take my money. ‘A scam.’ People are wild.”
The meme ends, “Do good recklessly.”
This scenario plays out almost every time we encounter a person who might be in need, whether it’s a woman at Walmart, a panhandler at the stop sign, or someone seeking social services at the church. We are immediately on our guard, on the lookout for someone making money off our charity or taking something that doesn’t belong to them. We add layers of proof and protection to everything we give away to make sure no one can take advantage of us: regulations and conditions, paperwork and proof, even pre-loaded gift cards for the hungry instead of cash. And why shouldn’t we be cautious? It feels horrible to be tricked and taken for a fool. We don’t want to give our hard-earned money to someone who won’t play by the rules or will even enrich themselves off our mistakes. It’s maddening. It could even take from the people who are in real need — right?
This is the practical solution, the common sense of the world: Do good to those who can prove they deserve it or at least look like they will. Do good to those who are willing to play the game and present themselves well.
But this is not the lesson of Christmas.
A few days from now, many of us will celebrate God Incarnate coming into the world. He became a baby, completely dependent, in order to save us from eternal death. He preached, taught, healed, and even raised humans up from death, and on top of that, he sacrificed himself to be betrayed, mocked, tortured, and killed gruesomely. All for us.
He’s totally getting scammed, right? Do we deserve that kind of charity from an all-powerful, all-good Lord of the universe? Why doesn’t he make us prove our worth first? Why doesn’t he give us exactly what we need instead of the free will to do whatever we think is best with the blessings we’re given?
Real love (which is what the word charity means, by the way) is reckless. It does good not in order to reward the deserving, but from the pure joy it takes in reaching out. Love knows full well that the gifts it gives could be misused, rejected or twisted. But it gives anyway, wide-eyed, sober and prepared to be scammed. It knows that people are wild and unpredictable. It loves them just the same. Love recognizes the more you give and the less you keep (either in your home or your heart) the richer and more empowered you become.
I’m not asking you to sign your house over to the next stranger you meet on the street. I’m not asking you to empty your savings. But I am asking you, in the spirit of Christmas, to look deeply at the next beggar or hard-up person you meet. Then look deeply at yourself. What do you risk losing if you give to someone who doesn’t deserve it? If the answer is “$5 and my sense of satisfaction,” consider taking the risk. Do good recklessly, as that baby in the manger chose to do for you.