How I deal with beggars

“For I was hungry, but you thought I would spend money on drugs so that’s ok, come into the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

Every affluent Christian’s favorite verse, it seems.

And I understand the wariness of giving money to strangers. It’s the same sort of worry I get when I read about the problems inherent in “voluntourism.”Am I really helping or am I making things worse? Am I doing this for them or for me?

While my education in post-modernism, identity formation, critical theory, and all the other liberal arts mental gymnastics is great fun to write about, what matters more to me is this: I am a Christian and I want to do it right.

I’ve studied the Bible a good bit, especially all the stuff Jesus said while he was here. That stuff, in my opinion, is the most important. Honestly, I truly believe that if you focus only on the red letters and live your life to mirror them, you’ll be doing a fine job of representing Christ to the world. Sure, the rest of the Bible gives you a lot to think about and contextualize and study and consider and debate and theorize about. But Jesus didn’t ask you to be smart or wise or educated in order to come into His Kingdom. In fact, Jesus spent most of his time talking about “the least of these:”

James 1:27: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Matthew 25:40: The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Mark 10:21: 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.”

Matthew 18: 1-5: At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

Matthew 19:13-15: Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

A few recent conversations have brought this subject to mind for me: a lady begging for money on the street, and a debate over what is required of an individual as a Christian. I think I will limit this post to discussing the street beggar phenomenon although it is closely related to the subject of what is required of Christians.

The question I’m addressing, then, is “what should you do when a person asks you for money?”

The problem most people seem to have with giving money to strangers is the suspicion of what that money will be used for. Drugs and alcohol are typically the assumption and often money is withheld with this being the cited reason. What I find ironic, however, is when I witness a person withholding money because they fear the beggar will spend it on such things, yet that person has no apparent moral objection to partaking in those same activities and buying drugs and alcohol for their own personal use. To be a bit brazen, I wonder if it is moral superiority about the perceived level of addiction, simple selfishness, or some kind of sick sense of justice (i.e. this person doesn’t deserve to enjoy mind-altering substances but I do). This is hypocrisy for Christians and non-Christians alike.

The other problem with denying money to beggars because of suspicions about what they will use it for is that Jesus didn’t say “sell all you have and give it to the poor so long as they have a really good reason for being poor and don’t look like drug addicts.” I think Jesus was more concerned about the hearts of those who claim to follow him than the blood alcohol level of those they helped. Paul seemed to agree with me when he said in 1 Corinthians 13:3 “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Apparently, attitude matters.

And that brings me to my answer to “what should you do when a person asks you for money?”

The answer is short but it is not simple.

You should love them. If you have a couple dollars to spare, spare it. But better yet, and this is a trick I learned growing up in the Salvation Army, take that person to the closest restaurant. Sit down with them. Buy them food. Ask what their name is. Ask what they need, what they want, who they are and who they want to be. Make a friend. Cultivate a relationship. Respect the human life that is sitting across from you. Offer what you can to help them: find them a shelter or a job agency or offer to help them put together a resume. A lot of people just want someone to listen to them. By offering friendship and love out of empathy and respect, you are providing them really valuable support, the kind maybe you were hoping to give instead of just the next bottle of Jack.

Okay, so you’re a teenaged girl or a busy college student or a wealthy lawyer. You’d be risking your safety, wasting your time, spending money you can’t afford, hurting your image, etc. Yes, there are thousands of good reasons not to make friends with a stranger on the street who has gotten to a point in their life that asking for money from passersby is the best idea they’ve got. Yes, they probably are mentally ill (so are lots of rich people, pretty people, clean people…). Yes, they might very well engage in immoral acts (Jesus said “let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” John 8:7 and “judge not, that ye be not judged” Matthew 7:1). I suppose they might kill you or rob you, but in my experience most people who get offered to have lunch and someone to talk to are quite happy to take you up on it and be pretty appreciative and not homicidal.

And if I get to heaven after bleeding out in an alleyway because I offered the wrong homeless guy a sandwich, I truly believe that I won’t mind too much and neither will Jesus.

(This is one of those lovely theories I can vouch for because I’ve practiced it myself and seen others do it. It isn’t easy or simple. It isn’t going to magically transform a homeless person into a contributing member of society. They might never be in the position to give you anything in return. They might never change their actions. They might never love you back or understand that you’re doing this because of your love for Christ. They might take from you over and over again until you are frustrated and angry that they are taking advantage of your charity. Your friends and family might resent that you have a smelly crazy person as a friend. But here’s the truth as I see it: Christianity isn’t pretty, it isn’t clean, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t fun. But with the love of Jesus working through you, it is joyful and beautiful and worth every burden it puts upon you.)