The question of what to do when approached on the street and asked for money has been consistently on my heart and mind for several years. Before I start writing, I want to make very plain that this post is not about me being generous, or great, or anything of the sort. More than anything else, it is a confession of my own pride and ignorance, and a reflection on the goodness of Jesus.
I’ve spent the last two summers working in Community Ministries at FBC-Tulsa, which included spending every morning in their poverty caring center. I’ve spent a weekend in the Kensington district of Philadelphia, gleaning wisdom from Shane Claiborne. I’ve worked with impoverished and urban youth in multiple contexts, been to Kids Across America twice, and several of my closest friends are social workers with whom I have had numerous conversations about poverty. I have a religion degree, and am about to start seminary. And I still feel completely clueless when faced with the question: As a follower of Jesus, what should I do when people come up to me and ask for money? Maybe you feel the same way. If you live in Waco, then you are almost certainly confronted with this question frequently.
Prior to the last six months or so, I usually declined when people would approach me asking for money. Occasionally, if someone seemed exceptionally sincere or desperate, I would make an exception and give them some pocket change. But then I ran into Matthew 5:42 during our Sermon on the Mount series last semester, and my thinking started to change. Smack in the middle of turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, Jesus says: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” And just like that, all of my walls of pragmatism and justified selfishness began crumbling down. Because there are no exceptions here, no qualifications on the command. There are no “if”s or “but”s or “unless”es.
Jesus says give, just like he says love. Without exception. So now I do, probably more than is “prudent.”
There are three primary ideas that I have always used to justify turning down people who ask me for money, but lately Jesus has been tearing them apart. I’m going to look at each of these ideas, and then reflect on why I think followers of Jesus can’t hold them. Honestly, all of these ideas still rise up in the moment when I see someone in tattered clothes walking my direction. All of them still pull at me when I hear, “Excuse me, sir” from the stranger coming toward me. But I’m learning to listen to God instead of these selfish instincts:
1. I don’t want to be taken advantage of.
Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but my assumption is that this is pretty universal. When someone approaches us on the street or in a parking lot and we can tell they are going to ask for something, our initial feeling is that they are trying to take advantage of us. I think there’s two different ways in which we refuse to let people take advantage of us. The first is simple material selfishness–we don’t want to give to someone for free what we feel we have worked hard to earn. The second is more of a prideful fear of exploitation–we don’t want to be “taken in” by a sob story that could end up being a sham. We don’t want anybody to get the better of us, and we don’t want to let the bad guys win by tricking us. Maybe it’s an American thing, maybe it’s an everywhere thing. I’m not really sure, but I know it’s not a Jesus thing.
This reaction is completely natural for us, as we are inherently programmed to look out for ourselves. But Jesus came to change hearts and minds, and this reaction fails to follow him. Difficult as it may be, there are times (a lot of them) when we as Christians should be willing to be taken advantage of. That’s what sacrificial Jesus love is about–loving people in ways that don’t make sense, without expecting anything in return. To our material selfishness, we must respond by reminding ourselves that nothing we have is our own anyway; we are stewards of God’s gifts, and have no right to cling to what he has given us. If we fear exploitation or scams, we must be willing to risk loving those who would seek to take advantage of us. Maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re getting ripped off or lied to–but what better way to love your enemies than to give them that which they need, even if they would deceive you to get it?
2. They’re probably just an addict wanting money for beer or drugs.
I think this is probably the sentiment we most often use to justify ourselves in not giving to those who ask. There are two aspects to it: Presuming to know motivations, and assuming that their situation is their own fault. When we convince ourselves that the person asking us for money has evil intentions of how to spend it, it makes it a whole lot easier to turn them down. And when we convince ourselves that their bad situation is of their own making, it’s easy to believe that giving them money is only going to make things worse.
But there are problems with both aspects of this assumption. Even if you aren’t a follower of Jesus, it’s simply not a justifiable assumption. Yes, a lot of homeless folks are addicts. Yes, a lot of people have put themselves in bad situations by making poor decisions. But there’s also a lot of people with mental illnesses who can’t afford to get help or medication. There’s also a lot of people who are victims of circumstance and only temporarily homeless. There are a lot of other folks who began as victims of circumstance and made bad decisions out of desperation that made things worse. (For a humorously profane but also insightful read, check out this Cracked article.) The point is, being homeless is a miserable way of life, both physically and emotionally. Nobody is there just because they are lazy. Lastly, me refusing to give someone money for dinner is not a heroic act of “tough love.” Yes, there are deeply rooted problems in this person’s life that a warm dinner isn’t going to fix–but ignoring them isn’t going to fix it, either. Desperate situations and societal structures are not being helped by me turning down someone who is desperate enough to beg for money.
As Christians, not only should we keep in mind that these things are true, but we should also act out of mercy and love regardless. Jesus does not tell us to give, if someone seems worthy. He does not command us to love people as long as they are trying to make progress. He doesn’t say to care for the poor unless they are addicts. He tells us to love and to give without exception.
3. Spiritual needs are more important than physical needs anyway, so it doesn’t matter.
I’m pretty sure this is a predominantly Western and/or American way of thinking. I may be wrong, but either way, it is definitely not a biblical way of thinking. But it’s an easy trap for us to fall into, because in some sense it’s true: spiritual needs do have greater ramifications for the one who is in need. In other words, I should care more about my relationship with God than about my physical circumstances, and we should desire to see people know Jesus above all else. But that certainly does not give us license to ignore physical needs. Nowhere in Scripture do we see God’s people abandoning the physical needs of others without reprimand. Justice and mercy for the poor is a focal point of Scripture from start to finish.
In Matthew 25, Jesus gives a pretty black and white condemnation of this attitude. He even goes so far as to say that those who take care of the needy are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of God.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Conversely, those who fail to care for the needy are sent away from God, because “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me (v. 45).” Have we allowed this passage to sink in? Jesus says, very directly, that citizenship in the kingdom of God is determined not by theological accuracy or church attendance, but by caring for the poor. That’s a far cry from the attitude in which we justify our inaction by saying that physical needs are not important. I am certainly not saying that we should stop seeking to bring people to Christ–our entire lives should be structured around doing so. But we should take Jesus seriously when he says that people will be condemned because they failed to care for the poor.
If you’re still reading at this point, odds are that this is an important issue for you. I hope I’ve helped you think through it in a way that maybe you hadn’t before. There are no easy answers to this question. There’s no formula for when to give, how much to give, or whom to give to. And honestly, I’m far from being sure that I’m right. But one thing I have learned with certainty is this: Looking a homeless person in the eye, shaking their hand, and introducing yourself goes farther than we can understand in restoring their sense of humanity and dignity. The world has told them that they are worthless, but we are called to look after ‘the least of these.’ May we never allow ourselves to see other human beings made in the image of God as nuisances.