This month you told me, “Hold on lightly to possessions; all you have is mine.” Then you brought forward chances to let go: my sweater to the shivering boy, my shirt to the cadavre (swollen past the size of her own clothes), my mat to the child who had no bed, my socks to help the traveler. Yes, all I have is yours.
One of the key lessons that we learned as missionaries living among people with few resources was to hold lightly to our possessions. Day after day we would encounter people truly in need. Some would come to our door, asking for help with food, or school, or medical issues, or sometimes it was a widow needing housing or a way to make a living. In the villages scattered around Ferkessédougou, where subsistence farming’s success was dependent on the weather and whether one could afford fertilizer for the poor soil, there were often drastic needs. It would become overwhelming. We could not help everyone. Compassion fatigue was a constant dilemma.
I was convicted of my tendency to let Glenn, with his gift of mercy, handle most of the situations. Eventually I felt the Lord was telling me that everything I owned was a gracious blessing from him, not my “due.” So I repented, and told him I would be on a learning curve, remembering that he was my Father, and my possessions were supplied by him. If he wanted me to let go of something, I would do it. The series of opportunities to do exactly that, those listed in the poem, came quickly, a test of my willingness to let go and give.
The situation that truly moved me was when the adult daughter of one of our friends died suddenly. She had been selling goods to make a living, walking the town streets carrying a basket on her head filled with various lotions and medications. She wasn’t feeling well so took one of the medicines herself. It turned out to be outdated and poisonous. Her kidneys shut down, her body swelled, and she died. We went to the family courtyard to mourn with them, and I was asked to join the special group of women selected from the extended family to wash the corpse and prepare it for burial; I was to take them to the hospital morgue. They had brought some of her dressiest clothes to put on her. After washing the body, they dressed her – but the cotton shirt would not fit over her swollen neck, chest and shoulders! What could they do? I realized that I had on a very stretchy top that just might work, so I took it off and handed it over. Sure enough, they were able to make it fit. One of the women in the group offered me her extra two-yard “pagne” wrap so that I could wrap it like a towel around my own chest and get home to find another shirt for myself.
My Lord’s point was: when I show you a need you can meet, do it! As he said to the crowd of disciples as he taught them on the mountainside: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matt. 5:42 NET)
Does that mean that you are to be a passive doormat, giving to everyone, even that beggar that you know will misuse the gift? No, as we discussed last week, we are still to discern what would be promoting evil and resist that. What is emphasized here is a radical change of heart from the normal human tendency to insist on “my rights” and to greedily hold onto possessions. The disciple is to reflect the heart of his Master, who is gracious and generous. We have had his mercy poured out on us, undeserving as we are. Can we then be like him, and give generously when we see a need?
This command comes in a list of four ways to show undeserved compassion to someone who is in some way demanding. Donald Hagner explains the impact of these acts:
“Rather than demanding strict justice, or allowing for retaliation of any kind, the disciple of the kingdom defers to others. The disciple does not insist on personal rights. Furthermore, the true disciple does more than is expected. He or she is free from society’s low standards of expectation, being subject only to the will of the Father. The conduct of the disciple is filled with surprise for those who experience it. This element of surprise relates closely to and reflects the grace that is central to the gospel.”
Yes, this kind of generosity is, in essence, grace. Even when discretion is needed, doing what is not expected can bring surprise and blessing. One day at a local grocery store in Detroit a man was hanging around outside. As I exited with my grocery cart, he offered to pack my goods in the car for me and return the cart. I knew he wanted a tip, and I hesitate to give money to those who might use it for drugs or something. So I offered him a banana instead, and he gladly accepted it. As I was leaving he called out, “That was delicious – I’ve never tasted one before!” Once again I was reminded of how much I have been blessed with delicious foods in this life. I now wish I had turned around and given him the whole bunch of bananas! Gracious giving is indeed a learning curve.
The same is true of lending. We had many cases when young people asked to borrow money to get vocational training, for example, promising to pay it back when they found employment. Then, time after time, they would not be able to find work in that field. The lesson was there, in Jesus’ teaching: don’t worry about getting paid back!
“And if you lend to those from whom you hope to be repaid, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, so that they may be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High,because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people. (Lk. 6:34-35 NET)
In our personal lending experiences these were not our enemies or ungrateful people, but we still had to learn to let go of expectations in many cases. Jesus actually asks us to do this for those who are opposing us as well! Being like our Father, the Most High God, is not easy for his sons and daughters, but it is our calling. As the translation note in the NET Bible for these verses says:
“The character of these actions reflects the grace and kindness of God, bearing witness to a ‘line of descent’ or relationship of the individual to God (sons of the Most High). There is to be a unique kind of ethic at work with disciples.”
Earlier in this discourse Jesus had said that he came to fill in the meaning of the Old Testament law. This teaching about righteous generosity was indeed already there:
Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous. 5 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice. 6 Surely the righteous will never be shaken; they will be remembered forever. (Ps. 112:4-6 NIV)
A generous person84 will be enriched,and the one who provides water for others will himself be satisfied. (Prov. 11:25 NET)
The translation note (84) for “a generous person” reveals that the Hebrew expression behind it is “a soul of blessing,” a person who passes on blessing that he has received (a gift or special favor) to others – even a cup of water! (Sound familiar, like something Jesus said?) That person will “himself be satisfied.” The reward, the satisfaction, may not come on this earth, but the Kingdom present here foreshadows the forever Kingdom where our King will reward those who have truly lived out his Kingdom ethics. As was quoted in Luke 6:34 above, you will get no credit with him for lending only to those you know will repay you. In the verses that come after this teaching in Matthew 5:42 about being generous, Jesus will be expanding on how that applies to loving enemies, and how only the gracious Kingdom ethic will be applauded or rewarded by him.
That weariness that comes from living among the needy is not a rare experience. Some people suffer it to a point of burnout or PTSD. Eric McLaughlin, a missionary doctor in Burundi, describes it well:
“Compassion fatigue doesn’t always take you to PTSD, though. Sometimes, it just leaves you feeling exhausted, hopeless, irritable, and dreadfully responsible. It imposes a perspective that leaves no room for awe, gratitude, and grace. Most characteristically, it muffles or eliminates your ability to care appropriately. Though compassion fatigue certainly keeps company with burnout, it has an additional layer of challenge: While you can burn out on anything, compassion fatigue is the challenge of persevering precisely where you have decided to open your heart to someone else’s trouble.”
That “additional layer of challenge” is the one for any of us who are finding it hard to continue showing gracious love to a certain community. When the Lord has given us a mission or act of service, and it involves participating in “someone else’s trouble,” we must rely on him for the strength and willing heart to persevere.
All that we have is an undeserved gift from God, and we his children must be ready to pass it on when he puts the opportunity before us. Like the Samaritan who rescued the wounded man who was from an ethnic group that despised his kind, we need to be ready to reach across cultural or difficult relational lines to demonstrate his heart of generosity. Even if it means taking off our sweater or shirt to pass it on!
 Eric McLaughlin, “What Should We Do If Our Compassion Runs Out?” (Christianity Today: June 2022) https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/july-august/bleeding-heart-breaks-compassion-fatigue-medicalmissions.html