“Give to him who asks of you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”—Matthew 5:32.
This one little verse of the Bible has been giving me an awful lot of trouble lately. Maybe that isn’t fair to say since this one verse from the Sermon on the Mount seems to summarize a lot of Jesus’s teachings. Remember these ones?
· If a man wants your tunic give him your coat as well…
· You cannot serve God and mammon.
· Do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat, what shall we drink, what shall we wear?’
· If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.
These were always very beautiful verses to me. Full of love. Full of compassion. I thought I took them to heart, but the truth is…I did no such thing. I think the problem is that we as Americans feel like we’re so good at living out these verses because we’re so rarely challenged to do so. Because really, the gospel according to our forefathers says something along the lines of “Blessed is he who helps himself. Blessed is she who suffers in silence and dignity. Blessed is he who cherishes freedom. Blessed is she who gives out of her abundance.” And so what have we created? A world of dignified suffers and aloof agents of compassion. It was never hard for me to “give my cloak as well” in America because no one ever asked me for my shirt. They were too proud. Oh sure…I’ve given away lots of clothes and money, but never so that it hurt. Never to a point has that caused me stress, pain, or worry.
Now, after living in Tanzania for two years, I’m seeing the gospel for what Jesus meant it to be—hard as hell. Why is the gospel so different to me here? I’ll tell you this much…it’s not because the need is necessarily greater. Anyone who’s worked three minimum wage jobs to support their kids can tell you that. Anyone of the millions of kids in America who live without health insurance or nutritious meals can tell you that. Anyone who has a mental illness of who lives alone can tell you that. The difference in Tanzania is not the need. It’s the culture.
Tanzanian culture is traditionally a more communalistic one (although that is slowly changing in the name of “progress”). This is a place where a student can ask his friends and relatives for help with school fees without shame. This is a place where you can eat dinner anywhere. This is a place where you can leave your kids at home all day while you go to work and know that they’ll be taken care of. This is a place where friends help each other farm and cut firewood. This is a place here when I have something you want it’s fair game.
So…herein lies the difficulty. I make approximately $200 a month—which in the US would make me a pauper, but here it makes me on the same level as say—an investment banker at home. I’m rich. So it only makes senses that people come to me in their time of need. And usually I’m ok with that. Money for school fees, the hospital, funerals, food—all ok in my mind. I’m usually more than happy to help. (Even now when I know about 9% of people who are “borrowing” from me will ever pay me back).
The part that’s still hard for me is the whole “give to him that asks of you.” If I did that I’d have significantly less clothes, jewelry, shoes, and hair, for that matter. And here is where I start to get testy. Who are they to ask me for stuff they don’t NEED?! Have they no dignity? Why should I give them one of my bracelets just because I have two? So….wanna know what I did?
I stopped wearing bracelets.
And it’s not just that I’m materialistic. That’s not the only problem. The problem is that I like the power. I don’t just want to give when I’m asked. I want to give when I feel like it. One of my friends was recently in the hospital awaiting the birth of her second child. I decided to go and visit her and buy her a soda. She saw me on the path though and from afar yelled to me to buy her some bananas. I was so annoyed, I said no and left without even visiting her. Other times I’ve had people who really helped me with my work badger me to buy them a soda or beer. I always say no. Recently, a friend of mine, a village leader herself asked me about this. “Didn’t you hear him, Jessica?” I explained to her that I was sick of people demanding things of me and that I’d give when I felt like it.
And that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? No matter how I try to rationalize things in my mind….the truth of it is that I give when I feel like it. When I deem someone as worthy. When I deem their cause as worthy. When it’s convenient for me.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the gospel isn’t so easy after all and I’m not as generous as I’ve always wanted to believe. I can’t say I have an easy moral for y’all to take away from this blog, because I’m not sure I have even really learned something tangible yet. I guess if I give anyone (including myself) a lesson on generosity, I’d take a break from the gospel and look at Aristotle. Wasn’t it he who said if you wanna be virtuous practice the virtues? Maybe I won’t really be generous until I start buying people some sodas when it actually pisses me off or giving away some of my bracelets. Maybe if I actually start taking Jesus at his word I’ll see the beauty he anticipated. Maybe the freedom that I think I’m clinging to so tightly will actually be revealed when I let go.