During this season of generosity, I’ve been wondering how far we should go in our giving. Specifically, the topic of street beggars has been on my mind. You know what I’m talking about: the person with the cardboard sign on the side of the road. They’re at Babcock and 410 all the time, along with other locations across the city. My children have asked on several occasions why people stand asking for money, and like any parent, my behavior models for them how to respond.
Let’s consider two sides to the argument:
1. Some say you should not give to street beggars. The argument: Giving enables them and encourages them to continue begging rather than seeking true help. It’s better to address the complex underlying issues that lead people to beg – lack of affordable housing, job shortages, mental health problems, etc. Besides, you never know how the person on the street will spend the cash. They might turn around and buy drugs, perpetuating a cycle of unhealthy choices.
As biblical support for this point of view, some turn to 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
2. The other point of view is that we should give to them. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:42: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Those who advocate giving to street beggars might argue that it’s not our responsibility how they spend the money. Our job is to be compassionate and generous. The rest is between God and that person.
I smiled at a story in a Christianity Today article about C.S. Lewis: “One day, Lewis and a friend were walking down the road and came upon a street person who reached out to them for help. While his friend kept walking, Lewis stopped and proceeded to empty his wallet. When they resumed their journey, his friend asked, ‘What are you doing giving him your money like that? Don’t you know he’s just going to go squander all that on ale?’ Lewis paused and replied, ‘That’s all I was going to do with it.'”
In addition, the point could be made that our refusing to give won’t drive street beggars to seek help for the underlying conditions. They won’t abandon their post at the intersection because you or I don’t roll down our windows. They’ll just wait for the next person who will give to them. So why not err on the side of grace and help out a person in need?
Both viewpoints are interesting to consider. In some ways, not giving may seem wiser and more prudent in the grand scheme of things. In other ways, giving to street beggars may seem like the more compassionate thing to do.
So, how do we respond to street beggars? Here are some ideas:
–Safety first. If you don’t feel safe around a street beggar, follow your gut and avoid any possible danger.
–Be prepared with non-cash gifts. In the past at Shepherd, we’ve assembled Blessing Bags with non-perishable foods, water, toiletries, and a Bible verse inside. You might consider keeping a stock of such items in your car. One person recommends socks as a practical thing to give to a street beggar.
–Pray for the person. Every time you drive by a street beggar, ask for God to provide for all of that person’s needs. For the deeper underlying issues, God is the only true source of healing and help.
–Follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. If God prompts you to give, go ahead and give. Listen to the urges God places in your heart. If He nudges you to part with a few dollars for someone in need, so be it.
As for the proof texts cited earlier, each is best understood in context, not in isolation. In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul was writing to a Christian community in which some individuals had stopped carrying their fair share of the load. They most likely weren’t homeless but were being lax in their duties toward the rest of the community.
In Matthew 5, Jesus is encouraging radical grace. Turning the other cheek. Going the extra mile. Giving to one who begs. Then He talks about loving our enemies. He’s not prescribing the precise mechanics of caring for the homeless. He’s teaching broad principles about loving people with a surprising love that comes from God.
These verses teach us important lessons about diligence and grace that can be applied in a variety of situations. Neither one is an exact formula for responding to street beggars.
In the New Testament, there are occasions when Jesus and the disciples encountered beggars. I wish I could respond as they did – with a miracle of healing for whatever is ailing that person! “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk!” (Acts 3:6) Alas, I don’t have the ability to do miracles like that. But I wish I did.
In the end, how to respond to street beggars is like any type of giving: It’s a personal choice, ultimately between God and you. Each of us has to strive for actions that give us peace in feeling that we served God in the way He wants to be served.