I once sold some dining chairs for $90 on Craig’s List. The buyer, who lived out of state, “accidentally” sent a check for $3,090. His name was Donald and he asked that I kindly deposit the check and return to him the overpayment, keeping an additional $50 for my inconvenience. He would send a freight company to pick the chairs up once the problem was resolved.
I confess I tend to be pretty naïve, but in this case I asked the bank what they thought about the check. They confirmed that the check was fraudulent. By this time Donald and I had exchanged numerous emails and had even spoken on the phone. He called me that day to confirm that the wire transfer of the funds was on its way.
“Donald,” I said as soon as he called, “I want you to know that I forgive you.” Silence met me on the other end. “I forgive you for trying to steal money from me, my wife and from my children.” Still silent. “May I ask what your real name is?”
By now I had expected the caller to hang up, but he remained on the line, saying nothing for a moment. Finally he spoke very quietly. “Emmanuel. My name is Emmanuel.”
“Your parents are believers, aren’t they?” I said.
“I am a Christian, too.” Emmanuel stated with a little more volume.
“Where are you, Emmanuel?”
“I am in Nigeria,” he said. “You don’t know how difficult it is here.” His voice cracked with desperation.
I did not give him any money, but instead challenged him to repay all those from whom he had stolen. Then I prayed for him.
I’m not sure what has happened with Emmanuel. While I chose not to give him money I do like to gift people with words so I wrote out a blessing for him and sent it to the email address he was using. I’ve sometimes thought about Emmanuel. I even wrote an email to him years later but it bounced.
I think God is using Emmanuel to grow my compassion for the swindlers of this world.
Swindlers must be among the hardest people on earth to love, especially for those who have been duped by them. But they provide us an opportunity to love beyond human reason and to stretch our compassion.
Once Jesus had compassion on a crowd of hungry people and fed them – more than 5,000 of them. I think there must have been a few swindlers among them. Later, some of them went looking for Jesus and asked him for a sign – more manna from heaven. Jesus said, “I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (John 6:26). They were Free Loaders - people following Jesus in an attempt to get him to perform a trick that would end up feeding them. Jesus didn’t give in to their requests for physical food at that time, but neither did he berate them. Instead he simply said, “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:36). Not long after this he fed another 4,000 people (Mark 8). Jesus responds with grace and compassion to the swindlers.
Last winter, during worst of the Polar Vortex, when it was well below freezing here in Madison, a young man I’d never seen showed up at church. A couple at church had run into him outside the day before and housed him for the night. Marquell had no place to sleep Sunday night either so my wife and I invited him to come stay with us for an evening. He was an incredibly pleasant, well-mannered young person. He knew where to access the various services in our city, had applied for and had worked at many different jobs. Still, Marquell remained homeless. That night after dinner, we stayed up and chatted with Marquell then watched a Christmas special together. The next day I dropped him off at a local library.
Marquell texted later that day asking for $65 so he could get a bus ticket to Minneapolis to stay with his grandmother. Instead, I offered to take him to the bus station and buy the ticket. “Don’t you trust me?” he texted. “I just would rather buy the ticket than give cash,” I told him.
I never heard from Marquell again. Later that day I found out that someone from church had given him money for the bus 24 hours earlier.
When Jesus said that whatever we do for the least we do for him I don’t think he excludes the swindlers. After all, among the “least” Jesus mentions those who are in prison. We swindle each other for all sorts of reasons. None of us is above using manipulation – whether for money or for recognition or for sympathy or for friendship. We are all swindlers in need of compassion.
Emmanuel and Marquell have been stretching my compassion, growing my ability to love those who only see me as an easy target. I’m not sure there are any “noble poor,” any more than there are noble rich or noble middle class. We are simply swindlers who need someone to see beyond our manipulative façade and give us what we really need – dignity, love and compassion.