Good Samaritan or Gullible Sucker?

by Rachel Pieh Jones on January 23, 2017

A true confession of my confusion and black heart…

I came out of my office, got in my car, and there was a taptaptap on the window. I wound down the window and chatted with the man standing there.

“My wife just had a miscarriage,” he said. “She is bleeding. Can you help me?”

This wasn’t my first rodeo. I know the deal. Another expat had just told him, “I’ve lived here too long to give people money,” and drove away. She was a lot quicker with a response than me. I hesitated.

What if his wife really was bleeding?

I hear these kinds of sentences almost every day and honestly, most of the time when I investigate a bit, they aren’t true. But what about when they are?

I couldn’t offer to drive her to the hospital, that would have been the best thing to do. But my husband needed the car and it was late and I couldn’t call him.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“Follow me,” the man said.

I walked with him about a block, back behind a row of massive new houses. I wasn’t sure how long I would follow him: a strange man, a lone foreign woman, darkness, heading into a huddle of homeless people’s cloth and stick huts. He stopped before we were too far in and pointed at a woman lying on the ground.

She lay on a scrap of cloth, next to what must be called a house. It must be called that because they lived there but it bore little resemblance to what many people would consider a ‘house.’ It was four sticks jammed into the ground and a torn cloth tied down as a roof. There were no walls, just piles of their few belongings. Some clothes, some plastic bottles, probably to be bartered the next day at a shop, some empty cans.

I asked the woman what happened. I didn’t see any blood but she was probably adept at cleaning things up. Women in her position use the slips they wear under their thin cotton dresses to wipe blood every month. She mostly just moaned.

The man said he needed money for a taxi to the hospital. I gave it to him, plus a little extra.

I felt terrible.

What if he used it for khat, the leafy drug people are addicted to here? What if he had lied and it was all a show, to get some money?

And I felt terrible about feeling terrible. I felt conflicted. Had I just been duped? Was I a gullible sucker or a good Samaritan? And then I thought, does it matter?

Who cares if he used it for khat or if he lied? Or if he didn’t use it for a taxi but used it for some bread and beans for dinner? No matter what he did with the money, I had a lot more money than he did.

Why did I have to make this whole scenario about me, (like I wrote about here: Why Is It Always About Money?) about bigger philosophical issues of money and poverty and generosity and guilt complexes and best practice and helping without hurting?

And most uncomfortably, why did I feel worse about the possibility of having been duped than I felt grieved over their desperate poverty?

I didn’t want to write that sentence. I didn’t want to address that issue. It would be easier to wax poetic about the vagaries of wealth and privilege, to spout off verses about giving, to pretend like I had simply delighted in the joy of sharing. I could pretend like I’m a hero, for caring about the poor. That would all be deceptive.

I was conflicted, impatient, suspicious, torn. I don’t like being taken advantage of and so my pride became the issue at the center of this interaction. It was more important to me to be certain that I wasn’t being used than to make certain that this family had food and shelter. And since I couldn’t be certain of it, I was plagued by questions and doubts and the slimy feeling of being embarrassed. What would other expats think? Haha, Rachel, still after 14 years here, gets tricked. Haha.

Seriously?

If I had done nothing and gone home, I would have forgotten all about it. I would not have been kept awake at night with fears for this woman’s health or concerns about her living situation. But because I gave them money and because I worried about my own reputation and sense of honor, I was kept awake by the nagging questions of whether I should have given the money, of what other people would think.

Oh gross heart.

I don’t have any wise conclusions with which to wrap up this story. I’m simply saying, it’s complicated. I’m a mess. I still don’t know what to do. But the conclusion I’m gradually coming to in my heart, for myself and my context, is that I would rather be both a gullible sucker and a good Samaritan than a glib Scrooge.

God can work out the difference in the end. And somehow, I don’t think he will make fun of me for, maybe, being taken advantage of from time to time.

Yet again, we are talking about money. How do you deal with these situations?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • This is really good, Rachel, and such a real life situation. I live in Paraguay, and face these situations often. When do I give? When do I not give? Am I being taking advantage off cause I am a foreigner? Oh, the struggle is real, and each of us have to make those tough decisions. I do know that if God is leading me to give, I need too. Sometimes, we are the good samaritans. And sometimes, we are the gullible suckers! 🙂

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Fascinating, and sad, isn’t it, how upset we get by the idea of ‘being taken advantage of’? I often hear that about bargaining in the market too, it makes us feel foolish and our pride is affected. It is really good and hard for me to consider this particular aspect when it comes to giving.

      • Kathy Vaughan

        I have a certain amount of pride in being in the culture long enough to get good prices at the market and on the street, and I know how much every boda-boda ride should cost so that no one can take advantage of me. I can drive a hard bargain! And then, sometimes, (no doubt when I am actually in tune with Jesus), I feel so small and ashamed that I am so paranoid at being taken advantage of and so proud of my bargaining skills that I would miss out on the opportunity to bless people with a few extra cents, which are nearly irrelevant to me, but which can make a real difference to them. I’m trying to learn to be more like Jesus, and I know what that would mean for my “nobody’s going to get the best of me” attitude. So far to go still!

  • Sue

    I’ve been there so many times. Exact same feelings, questions, concerns, and huge lack of concern, and disgusted with myself. Giving or not giving to beggars causes so much stress and turmoil in me. I’m always wanting to do the “right” thing. I wish I were always wanting to do the “loving” thing. My current conclusion is that I’m too selfish with my time to discover the real situations of the beggars. I don’t want to get involved. I’m already involved with the physically needy just by interacting with people I know. How do I give to those I don’t know when I’m not even doing what I could for those I do know? Lord, help us to look at those around us with your eyes.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Amen and amen.

  • anonymous

    When I was a missionary in South America, I decided it was good to be wise when I didn’t feel I had enough information, which meant I might not give. I also carried a few pesos in my pocket for situations where not giving might have meant getting robbed. I usually gave food when people came by the house, but not money. Then, there were the special situations where I just knew it was my responsibility to give and I did ..sometimes help, sometimes supplies, and sometimes cash. I think the longer you’re in the culture, the more “sanctified wisdom” you receive. Did I get duped a few times? You bet…but God knew my heart and he knew the heart of the asker (who I always hoped would have a change of mind towards the truth if the “ask” wasn’t legitimate). I would also look for long-term solutions if they existed (like helping a woman with a chronic runaway son get him into a vocational/boarding school). I found the local people were always very helpful as I grew in my cultural skills. Who would they give/not give to and why/why not? Back in the States, I’ve continued working with people who live on the edge, and the same guidelines have been helpful.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Very wise to ask local friends. I’ve had some helpful, enlightening and sometimes quite funny, actually, conversations with friends. Your other thoughts are also helpful.

      • Leah

        Thanks for writing this. It’s those times when you’re out shopping away from your neighborhood where you DO know of people in legitimate need, or away from the national church folks you’re connected with who can help steer you, that it’s hard to sort it all out. Sure, I take cues from my neighbors that I know well, from the national pastor’s wife, who is a good judge and spiritually acute…but when I’m somewhere I’m unknown and recognized simply by the color of my skin and the giant white SUV I drive, that’s when that “slimy feeling of embarrassment” can flare up. I also, however, have gained a ton of insight and exasperation-turned-peace by reading “African Friends and Money Matters” and starting to watch and understand how much relational networking is done by the exchange of money. I grates against every cell in an American’s body, but I get it a little more now and can even see the value in it. It shocks me that I can even say that now, as eight years ago the whole system just made me frustrated! But yeah, sometimes I think that’s the key for me; if there’s any way that my giving this person money right now could actually result in our meeting up again later, then I think they’re being sincere. If it looks quite impossible that I’ll ever interact with this person again, in the culture where we live, it’s probably a bogus request. Of course, there was a fairly professional duper who came to our neighborhood with every sign of staying a part of things, and we didn’t know it, and we got duped big time. He’d even spent time in jail for it! Oh well. The community we’re in looked at the situation with pity for us and still a bit of admiration that we were willing to give and didn’t make a big stink about it when we found out he was a crook. Having and being able to give is a big value there. Anyway, rattling on now, but thanks for catalyzing the thoughts and conversation.

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          I love that book, too. Definitely a must-read. And thanks for your honest sharing, too about how hard this. I like your perspective of in your own neighborhood versus places you are unknown. That’s a useful parameter.

  • Chuck

    I’m not a preacher or a missionary, so this probably doesn’t flow very well. It represents the kinds of things I think about regarding this subject, though.

    I have wondered for the longest time if I am cheating myself out of joy and peace because I don’t have the courage to take Jesus at His Word.

    For example:

    “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
    – Matthew 5:42 NIV11

    ““No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
    – Matthew 6:24 NIV11

    “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
    – Luke 12:33 NIV11

    What if the Scripture faithfully represents what Jesus said and what if He actually meant it the way it is plainly written?

    Or, when John says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
    – 1John 3:17 NIV11

    I assume that Peter wasn’t lying when he said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
    – Acts 3:6 NIV11

    It seems pretty certain that Jesus had no earthly wealth and the Apostles don’t appear to have had any either (although they administered donations for the poor and the widows, etc.). There seem to have been rich disciples who shared what they had and some even sold their stuff to support others.

    “that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales”
    – Acts 4:34 NIV11-GKE

    I think that many people (including me) are afraid to trust that Jesus Christ is Lord of all creation, of all riches and of our own lives. Are we possibly just blind to the powers that surround us, just as Elisha’s servant (who also liked money)?

    ““Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
    And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”
    – 2Kings 6:16–17 NIV

    What if those of us who worry about (or try to retain) riches are going the wrong way?

    “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.”
    – Matthew 13:22 NIV11

    “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”
    – James 2:5 NIV11

    “Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.”
    – Proverbs 28:27 NIV11

    I could go on and on. Folks at church don’t really like talking with me about this stuff and my wife would probably have me institutionalised if I dared to try living this way. 🙂

    • Chuck

      I realize that this passage might be slightly out of context, but the principle seems to be the same to me:

      ““Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
      Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
      Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
      Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
      and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
      The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”
      – Isaiah 58:6–11 NIV11

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        Thank you so much for this thorough and challenging response. I think you’re right. What joy are we missing out on by not being serious about Jesus’ words? Why is this all so hard? I think it comes down to my selfishness, fear, and lack of faith. Of course we should also try to be wise but sometimes that can be used as an excuse.

    • Kathy Vaughan

      Chuck, my mind tracks in the same places yours does. I am a missionary, and so I think I get more and easier opportunities to try to live this way (as if we really should take Jesus at His word, and live the way He talks about). But before I was a missionary I often felt people would view me in the way you talk about in your last paragraph if they really knew how I felt, so I often just kept quiet. I wasn’t bold enough to share very much with very many, or to live it out very boldly. Now, as a missionary, I feel I have more license to share my thoughts with others, and I can certainly choose more easily to live that way, but I feel the response is the same. Most people don’t want to hear about it, and most don’t understand it. I work under a wonderful board, whom I need and love, but although they give me much leeway in deciding how to use the money we have, it feels as if it would be so much easier not to have to be accountable to others regarding to whom and how I choose to give. So, the question for me really is, how much am I going to worry about what others think, and how much am I going to follow Jesus’ words, and trust Him? How much will I live as if every word He said is true, and should determine the way I live my life every day? I want to live like that, but I admit that most of the time it’s a struggle.

  • I think that there are times we need to risk being taken advantage of, but we should always do our best to be wise with God’s money. I have found that taking the time to look into the situation gives me a real opportunity to talk with those in need, and understand better how I might help. It also allows me to identify those who are scamming much more quickly. Sometimes I do my best, but still don’t know in the end whether it was a scam or not.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      So true – take the risk and also be wise. Finding that balance is hard and I guess it comes down to faith and trusting God both for our honor (and His!) and also for wisdom.

  • justwantedtocomment

    When I think of the situations in the Bible in which people were compelled to be generous to the downtrodden, several things stand out to me. In the parable of the ‘good Samaritan’ the man had been beaten senseless and there was no doubt that he was going to die without intervention. And then there was the one about Lazarus and the rich man in which Lazarus begged daily and was known to the rich man to be impoverished and in need.

    The apostles and Jesus were constantly encountering people seeking their help, and generally they were individuals who were known to the communities in which they lived to be legitimately in need. They were lame men who had to be carried, blind men known to be blind who could not see, and lepers who had to live on the outskirts of town.

    I don’t want to excuse coldhearted selfishness by pointing out that in our Biblical examples there never seemed to be a question of whether the one in need was a scammer. This is what conflicts me about the random people holding up signs at stoplights that ask for money. For me, it’s not about a fear of being taken advantage of as much it is an awareness that ‘fake begging’ (in the US) is something of a big business, and I don’t want to support it. I saw a documentary recently in which a newscaster secretly followed beggars after they left their posts and he discovered such things as that one ‘needy couple’ was actually a college couple who knew they could make $100 in about an hour from begging and they needed cash for the bars that night. They actually had a set of clothes they kept on hand to put on so they could pose as beggars if they needed fast cash. Of the ten people the newscaster followed home only one was legitimately in need.

    It’s just a very tough call when you know nothing about the recipient.

    • justwantedtocomment

      Wanted to add that my oldest daughter keeps Ziplocs filled with things a homeless person could make use of in her back seat. Some non-perishable food items, a small pack of wet wipes, a bottle of water, a small Bible, etc. It’s an easy decision to share those when asked for something by someone on the street corner.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      That is really interesting, something I honestly haven’t heard or considered before – that the people in the Bible are clearly in need, even recognized by their communities as having legitimate need. Or being in severe crisis. I want to think on that some more, thanks for your comment.

  • Laura Bowman

    I love your caring for people. Thanks for writing. I agree that I’d much rather “err” on the side of compassion towards strangers. In Matthew 25, Jesus has a very strong message on this. We own nothing anyway; we are just temporary stewards! : )

    31 “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

    34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

    37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

    40“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

    41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

    44“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

    45“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

    46“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

  • Kathy Vaughan

    There are few things which make me question my heart and my “fitness” to even be a missionary more than the struggle you describe here between pride and compassion. And there are few situations that test it more than when I feel the need to make the “right” decision when confronted by someone sharing their need with me. As far as worrying about how we are spending our money, yes, we need to be prudent, but I think my God is big enough to replenish the coffers if I err on the side of being too generous. I want to be wise, but most of all I want to have the compassion of Jesus and a heart that hears when He speaks. And that is my struggle – between my pride and my need to be “right” about a situation, and my desire to follow Jesus unreservedly.

  • Dave Swartz

    Been doing this as a pastor for almost forty years and I don’t think you ever resolve it. The pride thing at the core never backs off, the embarrassment and anger at being taken or about worrying about it. I do refuse people with firmness when they lie or try to play me but you don’t always know. The absolute worst is having to turn away people when the need lies far beyond my capacity to do anything in a concrete way. The bottom line is that I’d rather attempt to help and risk getting ripped off rather than turn someone away out of suspicion when there was legitimate need. We just don’t have the time or ability to do the detective work of sorting it out. It’s not about stifling my joy of giving because I rarely get that since I’m still staggered at the yawning need in every direction. I simply will look Jesus in the eye one day who said,” Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these…” But in the crunch of the moment, the bottom line is rarely clear but bounces from degree to degree of fuzziness. And most people in the western church are insulated from really seeing this in any depth except for that occasional person standing by the freeway off ramp. Thank you, Rachel, for writing so well and so vulnerably on this issue. The same goes for many of the respondents to this topic.

  • Such a great discussion. I live in America, in a medium size town, although I have lived abroad for a few months.

    I face the same decisions here, but I think as one commenter pointed out, knowing the community of the person can help. We do have people that stand on corners here (although there are no freeways, just a few major intersections they like to populate) and I am always torn. I know there are plenty of resources in our town for the homeless and destitute if they want to take advantage of them. But I’m fairly sure that sometimes they can make more just by standing on the corner and then of course, do what they want with it.

    The “blessing bag” that someone else mentioned is also a big thing for “teaching your kids how to be generous”, but I see it as kind of insulting. Those kinds of things are also available at all the local resource centers and at this point I have yet to see anyone that truly looks destitute (like you might see in a large city) begging. They all look reasonably clothed here and are usually asking for money for housing or gas.

    I typically don’t stop with kids in the car, but one day a few weeks ago when it was bitterly cold here (think in the teens Fahrenheit so well below freezing) there was a man standing on the corner near Jack in the Box. I drove by and then felt prompted to pull around and offer to buy him lunch there. He completely declined as he was asking for money. And perhaps someone had already bought him lunch, I don’t know. But I also typically don’t carry cash so there was nothing else I could do.

    It is really hard when you feel like money given is scammed. On the other hand, if I knew that someone was poor and truly needed it I think I might feel easier about giving. There is research out there that shows that poor people are no worse off at managing their money than the rest of us, that if we give cash grants to people most of them won’t actually blow it on alcohol, etc, but spend it wisely.

    Which is also crazy because I had a friend go through a REALLY rough time and I gave her a significant amount of money. A few days later I happened to see her post on Facebook taking her children out for lunch at a chain restaurant. I had to stop myself from judging. I also found out people had given her gift cards for things, but even if she had used the money I gave her, was it really wasted if it wasn’t as frugally spent as I would have liked?

    Anyway, super rambling, but thanks for the thought provoking conversation. 🙂

  • I have been thinking about this post since I read it last week. THANK YOU for writing it. Thank you for being brave to write that sentence that you didn’t want to write – it punched me in the gut in the way my gut needed to be punched. Just after reading this blog, I found myself in multiple situations where I felt I was being “ripped off” by a taxi driver and some vendors and in the response in my own heart (frustration and anger), I saw – for the first time – the pride that’s behind that.

    Thank you.

  • Just tuning in to this blog, and I can relate so well! My parents and I have been involved in ministry in Russia for 20 years (I’ve lived here for 12 years and they’ve traveled here sometimes). My father is one person who’s been taken advantage of, by people we were even close to. I know one thing we talk about is how “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” We might do something out of love that looks foolish. But on the other hand, as a woman in a foreign land I do think about safety when giving someone money. And I don’t want to support a drug habit, either. So this is all very familiar.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    “What will other people think about _____________?” Oh that question nags me more than I’d like to admit. It’s almost like an idol for me, one I’m working on laying aside.

    I so related to you on that count!

  • Katie Wolpert

    I don’t have answers, Rachel, but when the presumably homeless vet looked at me as the kids and I were pulling out of a Walmart parking lot on a cold rain-turning-to-snow-turning -to-dark night a couple weeks ago, I thought about you. And how you’d ask his his name first. And I didn’t have … something. The time, the gumption, to do that, I did roll the window down and give him some money and well wishes. And struggled very similarly to what you describe above. … and still think about him. And wonder. And wish life could be kinder to all of us. But it just is what it is, isn’t it?

  • Anne

    Ouch. As someone who just moved to Djibouti a month ago and trying to figure these things out… or more honestly, as someone who has been ignoring to figure anything out at all- this really got me. Thanks for the wake-up call Rachel!

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