Recently, someone created a fraudulent email address using my name and a photograph copied from the diocesan website. The email was written in awkward English and asked the recipient to click on a link in order to provide help for an unspecified reason.
Last year, the names of several priests of our diocese were misused in this fashion. I guess it was my turn to have my name used for fraud. If you received this, or a similar, email message stating that “I Need An Assistance From You,” I hope you didn’t click on the link. If you clicked, your computer is probably under the control of someone who lives in a one-room Soviet era apartment with twenty other cyber-criminals.
A Christian religious text from the late first century titled Didache offers wise advice about the common experience of being asked for financial help. The Didache says that if a prophet asks a congregation for money for himself, he is a false prophet. If, however, he asks you to help a person in genuine need, you should listen to him. (XI)
There is, as the saying goes, nothing new under the Sun. There have always been dishonest people; some of those have been willing to use religion as a means to ill-gotten gain. Today, scammers and frauds have the advantage of using digital technology for their crimes.
Just as popular as internet fraud is the practice of blaming the victims of this sort of crime for being gullible. In the case of the fraudulent emails using my name, there are several obvious clues that indicate I was not the actual sender. Anyone who knows even a little about me would realize that an email from me would be written in Standard English.
While it’s easy to blame the victims, there is something much more significant to recognize in these crimes. The vast majority of people want to be generous, and want to be perceived as virtuous. There are a few exceptions to this generalization, but most people desire truly to be good. Internet fraud, and other crimes, are successful because they prey upon well-intentioned virtue.
I don’t think it’s fair or sensible to shame someone for wanting to be generous and charitable. Discouraging generosity works only to the detriment of society and the Church. I think, then, it’s worth making an effort to help both believers and non-believers to discern between legitimate and fraudulent requests for help. How does one pursue virtue without falling prey to the self-serving acts of those who choose to be dishonest? Again, the Didache offers wise advice.
Like us, the first generations of believers faced the thorny issue of how to respond to people who ask for monetary help. The author of the Didache wrote, “Let your alms grow sweaty in your palms until you learn the character of the one to whom you give.” (I) Frauds and scammers depend on the tacit assumption that one knows the individual asking for help; it’s always wise to be certain you’re responding to a legitimate need. For this reason, Catholic charitable organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Societies do not distribute cash on demand; rather, they interview the person requesting help in order to determine the legitimacy of the need.
There is every reason to want to be generous and virtuous. Like everything in life, however, generosity requires responsibility. Giving to someone who is not in actual need, or allowing oneself to be defrauded, isn’t so much an act of generosity as it is an act of enabling dishonesty.
The reason, I think, that many people would rather give blindly than learn more about the actual situation of the person who asks for help is that our human nature shies away from looking at real suffering. It’s easier to give help as an emotional, knee-jerk reaction than share in another’s pain or suffering. The Scriptures speak directly to this weakness in human nature.
Today’s first reading is taken from Deutero-Isaiah, a set of writings composed near the end of the roughly sixty-year long Babylonian Exile. These prophetic writings are filled with hope that God would deliver the Israelites from captivity. This second section of the Book of Isaiah features the “Suffering Servant of God” texts that later informed the Christian preaching about Jesus of Nazareth.
In their original context, the title “Suffering Servant of God” is applied both to the entire Israelite nation and to the hoped-for Messiah. A similar dual attribution is used in Christianity. Speaking on God’s behalf, the prophet says, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6) We interpret this as both a reference to Jesus being “light to the nations” and to the vocation of each baptized person as being “a light to the nations.” All of the baptized have an obligation to bring the Light of Christ to all the world.
Specifically, with regard to the suffering and deprivation that occur in the world, the baptized have an obligation to be light for the world in two important ways. First, the sufferings of the poor and marginalized need to be brought to light so that all may see the consequences of injustice. Second, those who suffer unjustly deserve to be brought into the healing light of faith in Jesus.
Being “light to the world,” in the words of Isaiah, means acknowledging human weakness in oneself and others. The great value of inter-personal encounter with someone who asks for help is both that it helps one ascertain the legitimacy of the need and that it helps one grow in empathy for that person’s suffering.
The vast majority of people want to be generous and virtuous. Doing so requires honesty with oneself and with those who suffer or are deprived. Being “light to the world” does not result from pushing the suffering of others away from oneself but by drawing it near. To be genuinely generous and virtuous requires one to be fully engaged with the suffering of others: engaged intellectually and empathetically as well as emotionally.