Lawyers are taught to listen carefully to what our clients say and to ask questions, because a client might think that one issue presents the right course of action to take in court, but in reality a detail that may seem incidental to them could present a stronger case with a different line of argument.
Doctors too, should listen carefully when patients describe their symptoms, lest they misdiagnose them. My mother, a frequent migraine sufferer, was quite adamant that something had burst in her brain and it was a crushing pain unlike any she had endured before, but the GP insisted that it was probably just another migraine and she should just take some painkillers. Five days and many painkillers later, my mother underwent open head surgery for a brain aneurysm.
Sometimes, when we are approached for charity, it pays to listen and assess what the person really needs, lest we end up harming them more than helping.
A disheveled lady approached me outside a hostel in Adelaide, asking for $4 to take the bus home. It seemed strange to me that she needed $4, because the fare from the airport to the city had been cheaper than that. But I gave her the benefit of the doubt and handed over the change.
Later, I noticed her playing a poker machine in the basement, and I felt simultaneously incensed and sad. It appeared that I had just contributed to her gambling addiction. How could I have better handled the situation?
In Melbourne, I met a young homeless, nearly toothless girl on a tram, who was being booked for not paying the fare. I offered to pay for her, but the lady booking her paid. So I offered to bring her to lunch at an Italian restaurant… and the waiter paid! After we went for a stroll around the nearby university grounds, I decided to pay for her night’s lodging. After receiving $30, she said, “I forgot, on Wednesdays they raise the price, it’s $40 today.” I gave her more, and she departed. Later, I googled hostels in the area, and there was at least one with rooms for $26. I hoped that she would spend the extra money on food.
A few weeks later, she asked me for more money, saying she would pay it back. Soon enough, she was asking for even more. However, I was in the midst of moving back to Brisbane, and didn’t see her again.
Now, looking back, and having met more people who have struggled with drug addiction, I wonder if I had just been unwittingly feeding a drug habit. What could I have done better under the circumstances? How does one begin to help another person break free of the chains in their life?
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman, and when He met Zacchaeus, He asked them for simple things — a sip of water, lodging for the night. In asking them for things they could give, He opened the way for what He could give them — forgiveness and freedom from their sins, their patterns of addiction to lust and greed.
Perhaps here is a model for charity. Those mired in sin and addiction often feel helpless, even useless. Once you acknowledge someone’s free will and locus of control, they can begin to transform from within, breaking free of self-absorption while realising what they can still give to others. Jesus didn’t ask Zacchaeus to make amends for his misdeeds, but Zacchaeus joyfully announced that he would give half his possessions to the poor, and if he had cheated anyone, he promised to repay it fourfold (Luke 19:8). Our Lord’s request for Zacchaeus’ hospitality unlocked the man’s heart. How may we help to unlock other hearts today? And do our own need unlocking too?