“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:37-40
Jesus is not speaking metaphorically, here. He means it. When we care for people in this way, we are caring for Jesus. When we meet people who are in need, we are meeting Jesus.
But what if the Jesus we meet is mentally ill? What if Jesus is drunk or belligerent? What if Jesus repays our kindness by stealing from us, taking advantage of us, manipulating us? What if Jesus gets violent and we fear for our safety? What if Jesus asks for something it’s just not possible for us to give?
The Bible doesn’t say “welcome the stranger as long as the stranger is easy to get along with,” “feed the hungry as long as they don’t make unreasonable demands,” or “visit the sick unless they’re sick in a scary way.” Jesus doesn’t put conditions on loving and caring for our neighbors. And that’s a very difficult challenge to live out.
Christians throughout the centuries have struggled with the question of how to care for our neighbors, how to care for Christ himself, when providing that care is difficult, dangerous or seemingly impossible. You have probably encountered this question yourself. This article contains some suggestions for how to meet and care for Christ in difficult situations.
When caring for Jesus gets complicated
It may have happened to you already. If it hasn’t, at some point in your life, you will give generously to someone who then lets you down in some way. While painful, this is usually not the end of the world — we don’t give to receive gratitude, and we can trust that even people who manipulate, steal and lie to receive assistance are beloved and in the care of God.
The Holy Spirit is at work in ways we may never see, using our gifts to make a real change in that person. The Holy Spirit is at work in us, too, coaxing us to give and give again, even when we’ve had bad experiences with giving.
Sometimes, caring for people in need can become dangerous. Significant loss of resources and even threats of violence can result from our interactions with people whose needs are desperately great. We can find ourselves in over our heads and stretched beyond our ability to help.
At times like these, it is important to remember that we are completely forgiven by God through Christ, and so we are called to forgive others and forgive ourselves. Forgiveness for self and others is important when your generosity has been abused.
What can I do to help?
You are not God, but you are called to act as God’s hands and feet in the world. Given the challenges of caring for our neighbors in need, what can we do?
This sometimes feels like a last resort, but it’s actually a wonderful place to start and to return to again and again. Pray for your own strength, wisdom and ability to care as well as for the person in need.
Be humane and safe.
A very basic thing to remember is that people in need are human, and relating to them as fellow humans, as brothers and sisters in Christ, goes a long way. Even if you can’t help in any other way, a basic show of respect for the dignity of others can make a huge, long-lasting difference.
Each situation you encounter will be different — be alert, read the situation carefully and be safe. Be guarded about giving out your full name, address or phone number. Be clear and consistent about what kind of assistance you can and cannot offer. Remove yourself from the situation if the person becomes angry or shows signs of violence. If you need to, call the police.
Remember that people in need may surprise you in wonderful ways, too. You may be so focused on helping them and caring for them that you don’t realize how capable they are of helping and caring for you and others. When charity turns into accompaniment — a mutual ministry of caring — everyone involved is affirmed and blessed as gifted children of God. Support long-term solutions, systemic change and justice.
This is the best way to make a real difference in the lives of a large number of people: work to change the conditions that lead to poverty, hunger, preventable illness, untreated mental illness and addiction. This work takes longer to accomplish but lasts longer, too. Examples of organizations that work for systemic change and justice include:
- Shama, which provides microloans for women to start their own businesses. Empowering women in this way improves the lives of their families and their whole communities. The women are quickly able to pay back the organization — an act of financial independence that provides further empowerment.
- Bread for the World, an ecumenical advocacy group. This is an organization that lobbies Congress, supporting legislation that seeks to combat hunger in the U.S. and around the world. It is a non-partisan voice for ending hunger through improving government policies.
- ELCA World Hunger. While some of the money donated to ELCA World Hunger goes to meeting immediate emergency needs (in response to natural disasters, for example) most of the funds go to projects that seek sustainable, local, long-term solutions to hunger-related problems. ELCA World Hunger also works with international organizations and local partners to support sustainable agriculture, drought prevention and projects to combat preventable diseases like malaria.
Provide emergency assistance and charity.
Charity alone is not a sustainable solution; it can lead to a cycle of disempowering dependence and allow corrupt and oppressive systems and institutions to continue unquestioned. But justice work is slow, and people are in need of help right now.
The Salvation Army, Bootstrap, the Crisis Center and Health and Human Services are all organizations in our area that provide both immediate emergency assistance and some assistance with transitions to more long term solutions for work and housing. The resources of these local organizations are spread very thin, which is why more and more people are looking to churches and individuals for additional help.
In some cases, you may be moved to help someone with direct emergency assistance. This may not always turn out the way you planned, but God will work through your gift in ways you may never have expected.
Talk to generous people; find out what they do.
The suggestions in this article and your own experiences with giving are a good place to start, but the best way to learn generosity is by entering into conversations with other generous people. What motivates them? What do they do when giving is difficult? Talk to people who are generous in different ways — with their time, talents or treasure.
Jesus is always unexpected
Sometimes Jesus shows up unexpectedly, needing food, water, housing, healing and someone to talk to. It’s unexpected, but it shouldn’t really surprise us too much. Jesus always shows up in unexpected ways: as a vulnerable infant born to a poor family; as a refugee; as a friend to prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners; as a convicted criminal, dying on the cross.
Jesus showing up on Easter morning is about as unexpected as it gets; Jesus showing up every Sunday morning, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, is beyond the ability of reason to expect.
The unexpected Jesus challenges us, in many ways, to see the image of God in our neighbors and to reveal the image of God in all we say and do. It is not easy, but we are not alone: Christ goes with us, expected or not.