I chuckled to myself at the irony of it all – Hell’s Angels tying teddy bears to the handlebars of their bikes, and, in a grand display of magnanimity, delivering them to needy children. It was the annual Toy Run.
Never mind that the cash used to buy that teddy bear was probably earned selling drugs to the parents of these unfortunate children. Never mind that the scattered progeny of the bikers’ own multiple girlfriends and wives might well be the recipients of this generosity. Never mind that the last need of the neglected children of our culture is another toy.
All this was lost in the solemnity of our gathered assembly. The emcee called us to order and we heard how in 23 years the Toy Run had grown from humble – if loud – beginnings to a symbol of generosity in our city.
The details of our magnanimity were listed. Besides more toys than a large truck could hold, the cash raised was measured deep into six figures, each year’s total bigger and better than the last!
“Not bad for a bunch of dirty @#&* bikers!” opined the guy beside me, with obvious pride. I wasn’t inclined to argue – and besides the voice from the podium had instructed us to bow for prayer. Silence descended on the crowd. It was a fine, Trinitarian invocation that would have been at home in any church: “Bless those unfortunate kids and protect those who have gathered to ride for this wonderful cause.”
The communal “Amen” was the roar of 1,500 engines springing to life.
Of course, there weren’t all that many actual Hell’s Angels in the assembly. In fact, most of the riders only looked like outlaws. Most of us were regular people: mechanics, doctors, teachers, carpenters, lawyers, and at least one other pastor – who gave me the thumbs up.
But there is no denying it. In our town, the shadow of the Hell’s Angels hangs over the Toy Run. And so, I was wearing an insightful smirk as I marshalled into position.
I was still smiling when the words of Nathan the prophet rolled across my mind, “You are the man!” That darkened my countenance by several shades. Sarcasm tastes sweet and cynicism is intoxicating – until the baleful gaze of the prophet fixes itself on you.
Excuse me? First of all, I am here by invitation. Second, my life isn’t segmented into categories of good and evil (and heavy on the evil). Third, I am not trying to use my offering as some kind of indulgence. Frankly, I’m just here because of the fun of it all. What’s wrong with that?
Even as I protested, I knew my culpability. The Toy Run is the perfect charity for our time. We give most joyously if our generosity can be piggybacked on something we like to do anyway. After all it was barely a year ago that I trekked to Everest to raise money so that kids could go to camp.
And then there is generosity that costs us so little. For barely a dollar a day we can feed a child and with that we get pictures and hand-written letters. It used to be sold as changing the world for the price of a daily coffee. Since then, only the price of coffee has gone up.
But at least our giving is not from the proceeds of crime, right? Indeed it probably isn’t. But there is something incongruous about buying pencils, combs, and other trinkets produced in Third World sweatshops, and then shipping them back to the countries that produced them.
But even this bleak picture is not so simple.
In fact, the Toy Run, like other high profile charities, does more than deliver teddy bears. It also funds food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters for the homeless.
But the shadow of the Angels over the celebration should remind us that this type of seasonal, random generosity is not in the spirit of kingdom giving. Kingdom giving is supposed to be systematic (1 Corinthians 16:2), arm’s length (Matthew 6:3), programmatic (Acts 6:1), and the product of simple obedience to God’s commands. And, Jesus added to drive the point home, the left hand is not to know what the right is doing.
That’s why these great displays of charity should make us uncomfortable.
In the end Jesus’ warning had new clarity.
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone” (Luke 11:42).
It’s so much more pleasant when Pharisees are other people. But that’s missing the point, isn’t it?