I received some good questions from a reader on the subject of giving to panhandlers. Here are a few thoughts and responses. I may have more to say in the comments.
Matthew 5:38 â€œYou have heard that it was said, â€˜An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.â€™ 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.
1. The Biblical teaching on compassion for the poor, justice and generosity are well-established and crucial for a life of following Jesus.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. I have experienced aggressive, convincing panhandlers in many situations. I have seen many people standing at interstate exit ramps and elsewhere with signs saying they want work. I am as moved by the needs of truly deserving people as anyone, perhaps more so.
5. For several years I did inner city mission projects and worked closely with ministries in inner cities such as Chicago, Boston and Louisville. I learned a lot, and my responses to those people changed as a result.
-Aggressive panhandlers are almost almost professional beggars. Many times they are active and wanted criminals. In the right place with the right approach, they can make several hundred dollars a day. (A seminary class I was in proved this. Students lived on the streets for 24 hours and begged for money and food. The results were amazing.)
-Local police and ministries are almost always familiar with these people. Asking them to come with you to a “Help” Ministry or to a police officer will quickly reveal what is actually going on.
-Aggressive panhandlers have very similar stories involving traveling, ill relatives, hospitals, gas, car repair, being lost, babies, etc.
-Aggressive panhandlers will almost always turn down the invitation to buy them a meal. They insist on quick cash.
-Ministries that deal with this are very clear: Don’t give money to aggressive panhandlers. Report them. They hurt the real work of mercy ministry in a community.
6. Another group of people asking for help will be alcoholics and drug addicts. Again, they almost always insist on cash, and generally will refuse to be taken to a shelter, ministry or police station. It is important not to allow an alcoholic or addict to use Christian compassion to further their addiction. True compassion is to put them in touch with help.
7. Dave Ramsey tells the story of working with his church’s benevolence ministry. They put three guidelines into place for all people asking for financial or food assistance. 1) Work an hour or two at the church. 2) Meet with a member of the church to make out a budget. 3) Attend one church service. Ramsey says that over 95% of persons asking for financial help did not return when these guidelines were given to them. This is a good indicator of the actual makeup of most benevolence requests.
8) If a person does not believe that prudence and wisdom need to accompany generosity, consider this situation: John and Jenny are at the movies. They come out and a panhandler asks for $20 for gas. Jenny gives it to him and they skip dinner together. The next day, Jenny and John are enrolling in college. A panhandler meets Jenny on the steps of the administration building and asks for $2000 to fly to his mother’s funeral in the Solomon Islands. Jenny has the money in her checkbook. Should she write the check?
If not, why not? If prudence and wisdom should come into play with $2000, then it should also come into play with $20.
9) 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.
10) 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.
11) 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.
12) 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.
13) Apply the parenting test. If your child got $50 from grandma, would you tell them to give it to anyone at school who said they needed it? Or would you want some wisdom, prudence and stewardship to follow their compassion?
14) I know I sound like Scrooge, but I really think stewardship is not just pure generosity. Generosity is an essential component, but it needs to be tempered by prudence, wisdom and good judgement.