Monday, November 19, 2012

Who's the Obedient One?

A Jewish friend at church in NJ once loaned me a book from her child's Hebrew school, just because I was curious to see it.  I remember a story they used to introduce the theme for one lesson.  Here's the gist of it:

A woman in a great moment of crisis and need wandered into a downtown business office at almost closing time when there were only one woman and one man left working.  With tears, she recounted the troubles she was experiencing and humbly asked if they would be willing to give her some money to help her pull through.  The businesswoman stopped her work and sat beside the distressed woman, holding her hand and listening attentively and compassionately to her story.  The man, however, glanced up from his work with a contemptuous grunt and gave her little heed.

As the two women were tearfully discussing the situation, the man packed his things and, on his way out the door, handed the needy woman a substantial check -- then left without a word.  The businesswoman sat with the woman longer, crying with her and encouraging her -- but soon sent her on her way without giving her any money.

Which person obeyed the law's command to help the poor and needy?  The man, said the book.  You are to give, period.  Your feelings about the matter are of no consequence.

On the one hand, I saw a valid point here.  All the compassion in the world didn't meet that woman's immediate financial needs.  And there are certainly a lot of us who shed literal or figurative tears over the needs of humanity without lifting a finger to alleviate them, even if just to mail a check. On the other hand, if this is an accurate interpretation of the Torah's teaching (and I really wonder if it is....), it is teaching that is altered in the New Testament:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13)

Your feelings about the matter are important.  Not only does your compassion lift the heart of the one you help, but it shapes your own heart.  God is concerned not only with material poverty but with spiritual poverty -- in the giver and the receiver.  If necessary, He could zap down a pile of cash on the needy woman's kitchen counter to meet her needs.  He chooses instead to have those needs met through another person because THAT meets not only the material needs but also the spiritual needs -- of both people.

I become more convicted every day of the primacy of relationship . . .

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