Parker was arrested several times, but finally on December 17, 1928, he was incarcerated at Sing Sing for the final time. He spent his last eight years there, one of the most popular inmates among both convicts and prison officials. His legacy in popular culture is the phrase, “And if you believe that, I have a bridge I want to sell you.” Other people’s gullibility made his living for him for a long time.
Jesus warned his followers about being gullible. Generosity may be a virtue. Expressing confidence in the good intentions of others rather than assuming the worst may be a sign of the love described in 1 Corinthians 13. Sometimes we will be “taken” when we offer compassion and that is as it should be. “Turn the other cheek” may very well mean you get another slap. But in other cases, Jesus reminds us to “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” He tells us that he wishes his followers were as wise as the children of the world. Does he give us any guidelines here?
I am not the one to ask. Many times I have been taken in, maybe too many times, so my record is not a good one. But I can show you a couple of scriptures that might help.
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not cast your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” Matt 7:6. Jesus meant for us to be discriminating in offering the gospel. That does NOT mean you decide for yourself who will and will not listen. What it means is to judge the reception and act accordingly. Why waste time on those who scoff and scorn when there may well be others out there who are pining away at the chance to hear the good news?
He said the same to his apostles when he sent them out on what we call the Limited Commission. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town, Matt 10:14. Notice: first they were given the opportunity, and when they refused the message they were left “in the dust.”
Jesus did the same in his own work. Look at John 6. Early in that chapter Jesus feeds the 5000 with five loaves and two fish. The next day they come seeking him again. At least a few of them see Jesus as a meal ticket and he confronts them. “You seek me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” (6:26). Still later, as his discourse becomes plainer and he requires more commitment from them than they are willing to give, many leave. Did Jesus chase after them? No. He looked at his disciples and asked them, “Are you going to leave too?” (6:66,67).
Is this easy? Knowing when the time has come to cut things off is never easy. It may be that it takes some people years of teaching before they get it, and you find yourself saying, “What if I hadn’t kept on trying?” But then what if you waste your time on someone who has made it plain he is not interested and you never get to the one who is?
Maybe Jesus is saying, “Just pay attention. Don’t ignore the one who is ripe for the picking while you waste time on the other who has already dried on the vine.”
Sometimes you have to make difficult choices. Jesus is telling you it’s okay. He is telling you that he expects you to be wise and do your best. Sow the seed, give out of your pocket, but do not be taken in like a babe in the woods when the signs are obvious. When people show up asking for money, telling you they are Christians from another city, ask them who they worship with. See if they know the names they ought to. It isn’t a lack of compassion to check out their story.
And then if you need to say no, say it. If you need to shake the dust off your feet, do it. Just don’t buy the Brooklyn Bridge if you can help it.
Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone. Col 4:5-6