In this post on responding to panhandlers, Internet Monk adds his always-interesting voice to a debate that has preoccupied my Bible study group for some time. Christ calls us to give generously and nonjudgmentally; does that preclude any inquiry into whether the recipient is truly needy, or likely to misuse what we offer? In my opinion, ensuring that our intended “help” is actually skillful and effective should take priority over feeling good about the purity of our generosity. The I-Monk finds scriptural support for this position:
Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
The Biblical teaching on compassion for the poor, justice and generosity are well-established and crucial for a life of following Jesus.
The establishment of deacons and of guidelines for who is a “widow” indicates that the early church was aware of the issues that arise when Christians must make judgments regarding benevolence. I Timothy 5:3 and 5:16 indicate some are “truly” widows and others are not.
Paul condemns those who refuse to work, yet still seek to eat. The existence of such verses as 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and 3:12 make it clear that the church knew what a freeloader was. Notice Paul’s defense of himself in 2 Thessalonians 3:8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. Consider the ethical background of that statement: It is wrong to receive support as charity when support from work is possible….
Money given to aggressive panhandlers is money that can’t be given to the truly poor. Go to any ministry that deals with people who are truly poor. They will tell you that almost none of those poor people would be on the streets begging in America today because of the dangers, the criminal element and so forth. Addiction, mental illness, con artists and criminal intent are on most of America’s streets. The truly poor will be known to local shelters, ministries, schools and social workers. There are many opportunities to give to families and children who truly need the money and would never be begging on the streets with a story such as we commonly hear from panhandlers.
Every situation of compassion also has elements of wisdom. My son recently asked me for financial assistance to attend a writer’s workshop. I am not going to automatically give him the money in the name of Christian compassion. I am going to be a good steward and a good manager of what God has given me, and ask questions before giving. This is true at every level of giving. I receive hundreds of appeals every year. Dozens of students and missionaries ask for my support. (Many of them make far more than I do!) I am very, very selective about who I give to, and I ask many questions before giving. I believe this is God-honoring, as much as the generosity itself.
Jesus’ words are meant to underline the compassion and freedom of the Christian. Our generosity is an important expression of our discipleship. At times, we need to give with much less than perfect knowledge, and at times we need to obey the Spirit as he gives opportunity. But we are also to know the “streets and highways” where we are, and we are not to volunteer to be robbed as a witness. Aggressive panhandlers like Sundays, and they like Christians. We need to give them a dollar, a coupon and a brochure for the local “Help” office. We need to give to the truly needy a gift that will make a difference in their lives.
The parallelism of verse 42 is important as “beg” and “borrow” relate to one another. The one who borrows is making a promise to use wisely or even to repay. It is the neighbor in need, not the panhandler, that Jesus has in mind, I believe. The poor are our neighbors, but the person actively seeking to abuse another’s charity elicits a different response.
The article includes several useful suggestions on nonmonetary ways to help panhandlers and distinguish between scam artists and the needy. Read the whole thing here.
Notwithstanding all that, I will probably continue to give to some of the street people in my small town, because I feel disrespectful walking past them without acknowledgment. In New York City, where ignoring each other is the height of etiquette (and the beggars are much scarier), maybe I won’t. Another rule of thumb: if I’m spending more time agonizing over a dollar to a panhandler than over my own purchases of mindless crap, it’s time for a soul check.