The Emma Dilemma

Who deserves grace?  In this season of giving and goodwill, who should be helped and who warrants disdain?  I listened to a table-full of pastors lament this time of year when some unfortunate few attempt to exploit the system of charity for their own benefit.

I won’t let anyone have anything until I talk to them.  I can tell if they’re pulling a fast one.  If I even think they are trying to take advantage of us, I will show them the door — empty-handed!

We only give to people we know.  We don’t offer assistance to strangers.

 We used to give food and clothes away all the time, but I put my foot down when I got here.  We hardly even have people stop at the church any more.

One courageous young pastor said,

We try to help everyone who asks…

This was met with stony silence.  The consensus around the table was three-fold: you can’t trust people who come to the church for help, you can’t help everyone, so you need to have some standard by which to decide who deserves help and who does not.  It was only a couple of weeks ago that I attended a church where the preacher confessed that he helps appreciative people much more than those who act like they are entitled to assistance.  Apparently, generosity is conditional — we give to those who earn our approval.

Years ago I ran into this odd way of thinking.  The church I served embraced a 45-year-old single mother — Emma — who’d been abandoned by her husband and lost her job and lived in a squalid little apartment on the edge of town.  A core group of the congregation adopted her and her family and pledged to help them in any way they could.  This worked fine as long as Emma obediently accepted their charity, but there was a problem with Emma.  Emma was the absolutely most kind and generous woman in the whole church.  One woman in our church gave Emma a quality cloth coat — which Emma turned around and gave to a homeless woman in town.  The congregation provided a lavish Thanksgiving feast for Emma — which she divided with a welfare family living temporarily in a roadside motel.  Toys that were given to her kids were shared with poor children in town.  The response of my congregation to Emma’s generosity?  They were furious.  How could Emma be so ungrateful?  How could she be so disrespectful?  The few people who defended Emma did so by saying, “Well, she just doesn’t know any better.”

My solution to the Emma Dilemma was to make her the chair of our missions committee.  She worked with a small group of people to do for others what the chosen few had wanted to do for her.  Under her guidance, our local missions exploded — we were actively engaged with the poor, marginalized, imprisoned, homebound, and unemployed in hands-on, meaningful ways.  The one commitment we made as a congregation was simple: we would help whoever we could, whenever we could, wherever we could — whether they deserved it or not.  It made our job a whole lot easier.  When you don’t have to judge people, you can actually help them.  Oh, sure, there were some who tried to take advantage — and we pointed it out and let them know we knew, and it all worked out fine.  Being generous doesn’t mean being a doormat, and it doesn’t mean you don’t follow some guidelines.  But a person in need is a person in need, and we chose to serve the Jesus in each one we met instead of looking for the devil in the few.

Christmas is a time of giving.  Yet, we find ways to make it conditional.  How an undeserving people who have received God’s grace and blessing have the audacity to withhold a small blessing from those less blessed seems the worst kind of sin.  May we all resolve the Emma Dilemma by giving until it feels good, then finding a way to give a little more.

25 replies

  1. Matthew,

    You say you don’t know why the family keeps refusing help. Have you asked them? Because it sounds to me as though your church is trying to force help on people who don’t want it, rather than to build a respectful, grace-filled relationship.

    You (and your church) might consider trying to build a relationship with the family that is NOT based on giving them stuff. But I would caution against using the “asking them for help” approach unless your need is real and the request genuine. Otherwise you’d just be trying to manipulate them into taking your help – and that would not be helpful.

    In order to bring people into relationship with Christ, we first must be in relationship with them. That means a lot of listening and a lot of humility. Are the people of your church willing to enter into real relationship with this family?

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