"I used to think...that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one's eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people's hands, eyes, lips, and hearts." - Dom Helder Camara
I give to panhandlers. I give to anyone who asks. I have chosen to make it my personal practice.
Sometimes I give food, when and if I have brought my lunch with me, or I have just happened to purchase something, or I am near a restaurant or grocery store. Sometimes I give gift certificates, if I have them and if the restaurant from which the certificate comes is nearby. And, sometimes I give cash. Yes, cash: $3, $5, $10--whatever I happen to have on me at the time.
I know what you're thinking. Silly girl. Doesn't she know that its better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish? Yes, my friends, I do. But, I have recognized that this attitude is typically used as an excuse not to teach a man to fish, but to do nothing at all. We say, "It is better to teach a man to fish, but since I do not teach fishing, I will not give a fish either." But, I am getting ahead of myself. Allow me to explain.
For some time, I struggled with giving to those who asked for money or food or something of the sort. On the one hand, I wanted to help those in need and be a generous person. On the other hand, the specter of scam artists and professional panhandlers loomed large in my mind. The truth is, over time, the reality of a few liars and cheats crowded out my impetus to give to the many in genuine need. It dulled over time and went away.
Then, I began reading through the Gospels and I discovered that Jesus has quite a bit to say about giving and money in general. These are the ones that step all over your toes:
"Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." - Matt 5:42
"Jesus looked at him and loved him. 'One thing you lack,' he said. 'Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'" - Mark 10:21
"Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back...And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back." - Luke 6:30, 33-35
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Luke 12:32-33
"In the same way, any of you who does not give up all of his possessions cannot be my disciple." - Luke 14:33
I do not offer these verses as proof-texts for giving to panhandlers--by no means. I offer these verses so that we can look at some of the words of Jesus about giving. I find it very unsettling that in almost eight years of being a follower of Jesus, I have yet to hear these passages of scripture preached or taught as a way of life. As one country preacher has said, "We will worship the hind legs off of Jesus, we just won't do a thing he says."
But, my point is not to prove that giving to strangers who ask for money is good and right for everyone. Here's what I want to address: Why does Jesus instruct us to give to those who ask of us? What is the purpose? Surely Jesus, the all-wise teacher and preacher, knows that job training, drug treatment, counseling, and other forms of social help are more appropriate means of help for the beggar. Surely, he doesn't really mean that we are supposed to give to anyone who asks. Surely not!
The way that we normally get out doing what Jesus says is by making the excuses that I alluded to earlier. "I don't know what she will do with my money." "I don't know if he is an alcoholic or drug addict." "I don't want to waste my money on someone who doesn't need it." These are all reasonable concerns. These are all reasonable excuses for not giving. Yet, don't you think Jesus knows about these concerns? And yet, he still says to give.
Again, the question: Why does Jesus instruct us to give to those who ask, without holding back?
Here's what I think: We think that we are supposed to give in order to help the poor person. This is why we can justify not giving in most situations, because we can reason to ourselves that our money will not really help the person in need. It might just make the matter worse. But, I do not think that we are told to give primarily to help the poor person. We give to help ourselves. The poor person is not the one in need of help--you are.
"Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." - Luke 6:24
"I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." - Matt 19:23-24
"Jesus looked at his disciples and said, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!'" - Mark 10:23
Don't look around to find someone else richer than you. We are the rich man. We are the wealthy. Jesus instructs us to give to those who ask, without holding back, because we need to cultivate a life of giving in order to escape the trappings of wealth that will choke and kill our discipleship in the kingdom of God. If it is true that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, then we must be giving away our treasure in order not to be a slave to "Mammon" instead of God.
Do you believe Jesus when he says that it is "hard" for the rich to enter the kingdom of God? Do you believe Jesus when he implies that wealth is dangerous? If so, then we should quake in fear and trembling.
I have determined that, for me, I must give to anyone who asks, even panhandlers, in order to become the kind of person who is not attached to my things, my possessions. I must give in order to be spiritually formed as a disciple of Jesus.
And, as I do so, I am made and more aware of just how much I hoard what I have, carressing my "precious" things, like Golum with the "ring of power." This is a bondage that saps the energy out of me, makes me into a person obsessed with me, myself, and all that belongs to me. I need to be delivered from this trap. I need to be saved from materialism. And, for my liberation, I need the poor. I think Jesus understood this and taught his disciples accordingly.
Now, I know what your questions are. What if they are scamming you? What if they are using your money for drugs or alcohol or something else? What if they keep coming back because you've given them money once?
I haven't figured all this out yet, but here's what I'm thinking right now: If they are scamming me, it is not my concern. So what if I lose $5 to someone who doesn't need it? How much do I have that I don't need? My money is not really my money. If God wants to shuffle my $5 to someone else who doesn't need it, what concern is that to me? If God owns everything, then that includes my $5, whether it's in my pocket or the pocket of a scam artist.
I can't tell for sure if someone will use what I give for drugs or alcohol. They could do so. Or, they could not. The same is true of the mission agencies, or the high school graduates, or other worthy causes to which I give. Again, what the recipient of my gift does with what I give is not something over which I have control and it is not something that Jesus gives as a condition of giving. He does not say, "Give to those whom you are certain will use your money for wise and industrious ends." And, if my act of giving is less about the person and more about my spiritual formation, then this question isn't as important.
Yes, it is possible that a person I give money to will continue to come to me for money in the future. And, why is this bad again? If the poor are "blessed," because to them belongs the kingdom of God, then I should be ecstatic that they will return to me. But, that's now how we are trained, is it? The poor, the needy, the outcast, are to be avoided. We give our money to shelters and mission agencies so that we don't have to spend time with them or see them on a personal level. I am the chief of sinners in this regard.
The truth is, I am blessed if the one in need continues to come back to me. In fact, in so doing, we can cultivate a relationship and maybe, just maybe, I will be able to address the root causes of the person's poverty, not just the symptoms. That's where job training and social services and other things enter the picture. But, I can't do this without a relationship and I can't cultivate a relationship unless I have shown mercy and love to him or her.
So, there you have it. Panhandlers and the poor are a part of my personal transformation. I give to those who ask of me because I am a greedy, covetous, materialistic, rich pig of a sinner who needs to be transformed.
I share this with you not because I think all people should act as I have chosen to act, but because I believe the words of Frederick Huntington are true: "It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity."
God help us all.