An experiment was conducted on a busy New York City street. A ten-year old boy sat shivering on the sidewalk, it was barely 5 degrees outside, he was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt and covering himself with a plastic garbage bag. His brothers stood out of sight with a video camera and watched as hundreds and hundreds of people passed him by. Some would hold their hands up to block themselves from seeing him, some would turn their head or pretend to talk on the phone. For over two hours the boy sat and shivered in the cold and not a single person stopped to help him. No one spoke to him. Most refused to even look at him.
Eventually, a man stopped, took off his coat and offered it to the boy. He sat down on the pavement beside him and asked where his parents were, what had happened to leave him stranded on the street freezing. The man explained that he was homeless and had made a lot of bad decisions in his life and he didn’t want to see the boy end up like him. The boy’s brother’s came out, explained to the man that it had been a social experiment, hugged him, thanked him, and gave him over $500 in cash. It was quite moving.
What would you have done? Most days, I probably would have kept walking. Do you know anyone who would have stopped and helped the boy? We all have our philosophies on why we will or won’t help people, don’t we?
I can tell you where my philosophy got its start.
When I was in college, I was driving on a dark street one night and noticed a man laying on the side of the road. It was winter and there was light snow on the ground. he was actually in the road enough that I would have had to steer around him, I thought the guy was either dead or in terrible danger. I stopped my 1969 Volkswagen Microbus in the middle of the street, and got out to see if I could help. As I approached him he jumped up with a knife, yelling at me and chased me back to my van. I jumped in and drove away, shaken up and quite a bit more cynical than before I had stopped.
I have to admit, that experience has stayed with me, I remember it every time I see a stranger in need. It keeps me from helping people sometimes. I assume people are trying to scam me, or rob me.
We’re surrounded by people in need. I see the homeless sleeping under the overpasses every day, there’s someone on every corner holding a cardboard sign. How does Jesus expect us to respond? He doesn’t want empty prayers of “be warm and fed,” He wants us to actually do something sometimes.
What’s your strategy? Your philosophy? Never give? Always give? Only give if _______? “I only give if they are female, or if they are a child, or it they have a child with them, or an animal, only if I make eye contact, only if they are really old, or handicapped? Maybe you only give if you happen to have some small change on you—maybe you make sure you never have small change on you so you ‘re off the hook.
One day I rolled down my window and offered an old man with an “I’m hungry” sign an apple. He looked at me and showed me his big toothless grin, said “Thanks brother, but I ain’t got no need for an apple.”
The question is “why do you do what you do?” Or “Why do you never do anything?”
I think we all know that we should do good in general, and that we should help people. Everyone knows greed is wrong and generosity for our neighbor who is in need is right.
There are Good Samaritan laws based on this idea.
A couple of weeks ago a Church in San Francisco installed a sprinkler system so the homeless wouldn’t sleep in front of their building. That’s what you call a really bad PR move.
Astonishingly, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 33 American cities passed new restrictions on feeding the homeless between January 2013 and April 2014—including Houston. In the Bible, a society that punishes those that feed the poor and vulnerable is as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah. Not good cultural role models for a city.
It seems to me that we have lost our compassion.
We’re continuing to look at the Sermon on the Mount. This week we are looking at charity. Our text is the beginning of Matthew chapter 6.
It’s interesting that Jesus spends no time at all telling us that we should give to the needy, it’s as if He assumes any person with half a conscience already knows that part. He starts right away with what our attitude and motivation toward giving should be. Matthew six, starting at verse one:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
He is asking us to check our motives for why we help people.
Sometimes we help other people but it’s really for ourselves. Jesus says we should sound no trumpet when we give or we will have received our reward. But what if the reason we are giving is because we want people to think we’re a good person—or it looks good for our organization—let’s use one of those big checks! Or maybe we give a little bit because we don’t want to feel like a bad person, we want to live up to our internal legend of “the kind of person who helps people.”
Like if you are looking through a magazine and come across a full-page ad to help starving children in a third world country. The photo shows a sad kid with a bloated belly and flies in their eyes. The caption might as well be, “Turn the page if you are a heartless jerk.” Do you ever wonder about the photographer who took the picture. Like they’re walking around looking for the saddest, most heart wrenching pathetic looking child so they can capture it in a photo? “Okay, that one is pretty bad, but let’s see if we can find one that is closer to death—with more flies.” And, do you think they help the kids after they take their picture? Hurry up and turn the page, so we can stop thinking about it.
The fear of being labeled a “bad person” is an incredibly powerful motivator. Would you be more likely to help the freezing boy if you knew there was a camera rolling? Or if you were walking down the street with someone like Jesus, or Batman.
And as long as I really help someone, why does the motivation matter? Because it’s bad for us if we only help people so that we can look good. It makes us a slave. We can’t live as a slave to the applause and approval of others and also live for God. Our wholeness has to come from God alone.
Once we start down the road of filling our emptiness with the approval of others, we’ll never be able to do enough to keep ourselves full. The applause will only make us hungry for more applause—Jesus says it like this, “You will have your reward.”
Another trap we can fall into is pretending like we aren’t doing it for ourselves, but we’re doing it for God. This sounds good but it really isn’t any better. The problem with thinking our charity is for God is that God doesn’t need our charity.
We seem to think our “good deeds” give us extra points with Him, like He’ll be impressed with how good we are. Don’t take this the wrong way, but we can’t be good enough for God. That can’t be the point of anything we do. This isn’t meant to be discouraging, but we’re all a bunch of miserable turkeys. The gap between who we are and “being good enough” to impress God is too wide. We’re like an amoeba trying to play the violin. We’re like a newborn baby in an ironman competition. We a toddler challenging a professional MMA fighter to a fight in the cage. We are Hitler giving Anne Frank a pulled pork sandwich. And even though our attempts are just as absurd, it doesn’t stop us from the self-delusion of thinking our good works actually score us points with God. Like He owes us big time if we play the role of Good Samaritan once in a while.
And when we do something we think is really good, don’t we feel a little spiritual pride? Maybe a little relief from all the times we looked away? Doesn’t it give us a little extra confidence between us and God? Like He loves us a little bit more when we are good? This is dysfunctional.
Look at it this way, a kid comes home from kindergarten. You’re the Mom, and you ask how their day went and the kid says, “Well, it was a good day. I was nice to my friends, listened to the teacher, and I made this for you.” Then they hand you a paper plate with nine pieces of macaroni glued to the front with some glitter. You say “Wow, this is wonderful, sweetie. It sounds like you sure were good today!” Then they say, “Well, I did it because I want you to love me.”
Doesn’t that sound like something is wrong? Wouldn’t that make your heart sink? Don’t you want your child to know you love them already? Wouldn’t you want to hug them and assure them you love them just because they’re your child, not because they try to be good to impress you? Wouldn’t it be sad if they thought you didn’t love them unless they make offerings of macaroni art and glitter?
So, If we’re not supposed to help people to make ourselves look good in the eyes of others or to make us feel better about ourselves—and if we can’t do anything to impress God—then what’s the point? Why should we do good at all?
Well, here comes Dr MOTO: Master of the painfully obvious. Jesus invites us to help our neighbor because they need help. God doesn’t need your charity but your neighbor does. Our motivation should just be “because they need something and we have it.” They’re cold and we have an extra coat. They’re hungry and we have some extra food. They are thirsty and we can give them a cup of water.
We spend so much time looking in our neighbor’s bowl to see if they have more than we do, and what we should be more concerned with is checking to see if they have enough.
If they don’t have enough, we should share. And when we give to them, Jesus says “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
What the heck does that mean? Is it some kind of trick? Sleight of hand to make the quarter magically appear from behind someone’s ear? No, He’s not trying to make generosity extra hard. He’s not saying that all our giving has to seem to come from out of thin air, perfectly anonymous. Some people use this as another excuse not to give. Or a way to feel better than other people.
I think it’s an internal test: would I still be generous if no one knew?
It’s a warning against the Humblebrag. It’s like a Facebook post that says, “No coffee for me today, gave my $5 to a homeless friend. Made his day. Made my day more. #blessed” It’s self glorification in the disguise of humility.
The other day my daughter said, “I’ve been doing a lot better on paying a tithe when I get my allowance,” She went on to explain how much money she had given in the offering. Then she said, “I’m not doing so good at the “being humble and not bragging about it” part, though.
When we wrestle with our motivation for why we give, we reveal a lot about ourselves. Does our motivation come from guilt or shame? Trying to make ourselves feel better, or hoping to impress someone else—even God? If so, Stop. Those motivations will lead us to terrible places.
Of course we are not supposed to stop giving or being generous to people, but do this instead: Look around and ask God to show you the needs of the people you see—then listen to Him for the answer.
This is really a message on how God answers prayers. He answers them through people. People are His “plan A.”
We don’t seem to realize this. You might have heard about the guy who prayed that God would save him from a rising flood, He clearly heard God say, “Do not fear, I will rescue you.” Then and when three people in boats came by he one by one told them he didn’t need their help because God was going to rescue him—and the water climbed higher and higher. Finally he is on top of his house with the water rushing all around and a helicopter came by to offer him a ride to safety, but he refused to climb on board because he said “God was going to rescue him.” Well, an hour later the water swept him away and he drowned. When he got to heaven he complained to God, “You said you would save me, and you didn’t.” God shook His head and said, “I sent three boats and a helicopter, what more did you want? “What did you expect?”
When we pray for help we have a tendency to imagine some kind of supernatural, invisible, magic solution to answer our prayer, but God almost always sends a person with what we need instead. Sure, sometimes He’ll resort to speaking to us through burning bushes or donkeys or angels, but He usually just sends people to give us a message. Sometimes He’ll part the Red Sea or knock down the walls of Jericho with a miraculous display of power, but He is more likely to send a friend, a doctor, or an armed peace keeper to help us when we’re in trouble.
Imagine if that young boy who was freezing in New York City would have been praying for a coat, God could have made a “fur lined Carhartt jacket” appear magically out of thin air. But, He is more likely to send one of His people, one of us, to give our extra jacket to the boy.
God is always sending just the right person into my life when I need them. When I’m discouraged, He sends a friend to encourage me. When I’m broke, someone miraculously sends me unexpected money, or an opportunity to play a show or do some project comes up. A lot of you in this room were sent to me at just the right moment—you might not have even known it at the time—that God was sending you.
I wish I was a better listener, to the Holy Spirit, I mean. I want to be a person He can send on assignment more often. We have to learn to listen so He can point out the needs of the people all around us. People are hurting and praying — we need to tune in and be willing to answer the call.
We have the best example of this in Jesus. He did the greatest act of kindness the world has ever seen or will ever know. His death on the Cross covers all of this—Our failure to help people with no strings attached. Not only so we can be forgiven for our lame attempts at generosity and selfishness, but so the justice of God can be done without crushing us.
And He gave His life for us without saying a word, He just laid it down. No press release. No trumpets. No cameras. He showed us how it’s done. He saw our need and gave.
We’re free to sacrifice for others because Christ sacrificed for us.
When we hear the Spirit whisper to us, when we answer the call and give away our coat, or hand someone money, or food, when we speak an encouraging word, or quietly listen to someone pour their heart out—Remember that He loved us. Long before we get on the bus, whether we are nice to our friends or not, whether we listen to our teacher or get sent to the principal’s office because we ate the macaroni along with half a bottle of glue. We’re His child and he loves us. There’s nothing we can do to make Him love us more. Or less. He doesn’t need our charity. He doesn’t need our money. He doesn’t—but some of His other children do.
Do you help the kid who is freezing on a busy sidewalk? Or do you turn your head and quickly pass him? What do you do when you’re confronted with the needs of others? We all know we should do more—but what are we going to do with this message?
Why do we give or not give? What’s our philosophy? Our plan?
It’s not complicated, God wants us to give because our neighbor needs something that we can can spare.
In that social experiment video, the text that came up at the end said: “If you wait until you can do everything for everybody instead of something for somebody you’ll end up doing nothing for nobody.”
May we be a people who see the needs of others and try to find what they need in our pockets, so we can give to them. May we be a people who give without drawing attention to ourselves. May we rest in the knowledge that God has given His Son for us because He loves us. AMEN