November 22, 2017

Question: “Should I give money to people on the street who ask for it?”

james.jpegI 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 “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.

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.

Comments

  1. Oh wow, there’s no “almost” in comparing aggressive panhandlers to professional beggars. That’s exactly what some of them are.

    Back when I lived in NYC, there was a homeless guy who ‘lived’ down the block from our apartment building. My mother and I would pass him often on the way to the subway station. We did give him frequent donations, and we were on about as friendly terms as one gets with a guy on the corner who asks for change.

    One day I was about to walk past the place where this guy normally stop and I saw a woman with a grocery bag stop in front of him. She broke off a piece of a loaf of bread from her groceries and offered it to him. He accepted and thanked her and started to eat on it.

    As soon as she had passed and I approached, he stopped eating the bread. “Kinda tough,” he said, before tossing the bread away like it was garbage. “I like to eat the same stuff you do!” And he grinned at me like we were sharing a private joke.

    I guess it was clear to me at that point that he was happy with his life as a panhandler and expected to reap a certain standard of living from his “profession”. Sort of depressing, but I guess an important lesson there.

  2. Thanks for great advice.

    What do you do with vehicles on the side of the road with their flashers on? I’ve helped some and skipped others as they weren’t far from payphones and I have no cell phone.

    Perhaps your good advice would be well needed in this situation. I look forward to such a future post.

  3. Solid advice. I’ve got a few years of inner city homeless shelter work under my belt, and my view on panhandlers changed quite a bit from that. I still give on rare occasions, and a friend and I have a modest outreach effort going as well, but for the most part, nada.

    My favorite encounters were always panhandlers asking for cash for bus/gas. I always kept a bus day pass in my wallet & a small gas can in the back of my truck. Seeing the look of guilty defeat on a panhandler’s face was worth the rare occurence of replacing the items… ; )

  4. It would be good advice if I ever meet these sorts of people. In the pro-statist socialist paradise that is my country we don’t have many.

  5. This reminded me of the following passage from the Didache (chapter 1, verses 5-6):

    “Give to every one that asketh thee, and ask it not back for the Father willeth that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). Happy is he that giveth according to the commandment; for he is guiltless. Woe to him that receiveth; for if one having need receiveth, he is guiltless; but he that receiveth not having need, shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what, and, coming into straits (confinement), he shall be examined concerning the things which he hath done, and he shall not escape thence until he pay back the last farthing. But also now concerning this, it hath been said, Let thine alms sweat in thy hands, until thou know to whom thou shouldst give.”

    My sister has come up with an interesting “test” she gives beggars. In the course of a couple days, she came across two beggars. To one, she gave a dollar (I think), and his response was, “That’s all you have?” At the time that she came across the other, she only had 3 cents, which she gave to him, and he received with gratitude and saying “every cent helps!” So, her response to beggars now is to give them something around 3 cents, and if they are grateful for that, then she will give more.

  6. We lived near San Francisco for a few years and my wife and I stopped going into the city for any reason because the panhandlers were so aggressive, bordering on violent. I would guess the majority were mentally ill. I got so tired of hearing “Buy my poetry!” that I sought any path that would keep me away from not only the real panhandlers, but ALL people, just to be careful.

    While attending a dinner in the city hosted by my wife’s company, a panhandler grabbed for my wife while we were attempting to enter the building (a major hotel). That was the last we went to San Francisco.

    On the other hand, I also worked for a ministry in Chicago that hit the streets to help the down-and-out. We offered to pay for people’s meals and were never refused. We’d take people into an all-night joint and eat with them. Everyone we helped appreciated it and thanked us.

    So you just never know. Maybe it’s that Midwest vs. the Coasts thing, too.

  7. In my country, there are so many beggars. Unfortunately, I couldn’t distinguish they are truly poor or just wicked panhandlers. And I never bring any food when I walk around. Usually, I give some charitiy to those beggars but I don’t know whether my charity is useful or just in vain.

  8. oldcodger says:

    Thanks for this question. When I worked in the downtown area of a large city (before I retired), I’d wonder about what I should do when asked for money by a panhandler. Once, after I gave a dollar to a beggar, I smelled alcohol on his breath. Not only that, but we were right outside a liquor store. That made me realize that giving money might not be the right thing to do.

    After that experience, I started taking gospel tracts with me. I would give the person a tract about how to become a Christian, in addition to giving him a dollar bill. This made me look forward to meeting a panhandler. It also made me realize that I didn’t get as many requests for money as I thought I would. (The tracts were from my local Presbyterian PCA church, so I know they were theologically correct.)

  9. In Canada there are very few truly poor people. There are social programs everywhere and welfare will give them more than enough to live on. I’ve taught my young children that we save our money for people that don’t have enough food. A couple of times they asked me why we haven’t given to beggars. I’ve simply explained to them that they are only pretending to be poor and that we need save our money for really poor people.

    My test for beggars is to invite them to my house for dinner. I don’t live in the area of town that they hang out in so I know that if they want to come for dinner they have to make an effort. I know that most of these people really need love and friendship. They are so used to Christians dropping into their area, bombarding them with food and then disappearing back to the suburbs. I’ve never had anyone take us up on the offer but I’ve shocked a few people. One guy said, “you’d really have old Joe(himself) come to your house”? I really wouldn’t have a problem bringing them home with me, provided my husband was home, of course. Most of these people are just incredibly broken, addicted people. They need love and compassion if they are ever going to come out of their problems. By offering them dinner I feel like I am giving to everyone that asks of me, even if it’s not exactly what they asked for and making sure that I don’t walk by anyone that is actually needy.

  10. Great post, bub. Helping it great, but if some joe or jill can work for money instead of taking a freebie, then they should. Thanks for spreading the word about being smart with your dough, and thanks for working for The Man Upstairs.

  11. I am saddened to see mental illness lumped in with addiction, con artists, and criminal intent. I agree with pretty much everything else, but please be careful who you’re lumping in with criminals.

  12. >Addiction, mental illness, con artists and criminal intent are on most of America’s streets.

    Susan: There are thousands of unmedicated, untreated mentally ill people on the streets of America.

    How in the world is that fact something I need to “be careful” with?

  13. Well, back in South Africa I used to do the same thing if they came to my door – namely let them work for a while, give them some food, and if the work was good, give them some money. Here in Canada there are few excuses for being on the street – compared to South Africa, anyway.

  14. 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.

    Now, I do agree with some of the guidelines for being wise stewards and not doling out cash to every professional beggar(/alcoholic etc.) out there. But it does seem to me that you are erring on the side of prudence, if that’s what you want to call it, and I just don’t see that in Jesus’ actions. Rather, he tells us to be merciful like our Father in heaven, who is “kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” Luke 6 and passages like it don’t seem to focus primarily on prudence (though that is part of giving), so I don’t know if prudence should necessarily be our primary concern either.

    Again, I’m not saying we have to give to every ungrateful person or people who will obviously abuse what we give them. But it just seems to me (perhaps this is just a matter of personal conviction) that it’s better to err (if we must err) on the side of generosity.

  15. I’m sorry, and I just completely commented without really having a right to, I realize. I read this blog only occasionally and have never commented. I just had something to say this time. :]

  16. I think that every decision about giving is a mixture of generosity, wisdom and prudence. If someone asks you for your house or your savings, you are more aware of the other factors, but I can’t see that God is less concerned with the $20.

    I am reluctant to say this, but I think many Americans simply don’t value money very much! They have so much, that a few bucks means little to them. I would encourage them to realize that our money has many effects and we need to be aware and consider them all.

    I am not “erring” at all if possible 🙂 I’d prefer not to err. I have given money erring with the heart, but I didn’t take pride in it as “Wow. How much like Jesus I am!” I felt I wasted $20 and enabled a drunk to stay addicted.

    I believe a balanced approach is more compassionate. Not less.

  17. I don’t remember Jesus saying “turn the other cheek only for those who truly need to slap you, otherwise you’re only encouraging their violence.”

  18. I would recommend “Under The Overpass” by Mike Yankoski for anyone interested in learning more about a Christian’s experiences with life on the streets. My wife and I found it to be an incredible eye and heart opener.

    And I agree that giving money should be avoided. For those time we might encounter homeless/beggars, we tend to have small care packages of trail mix, cookies, bottled water, etc… We have not had a bad response to giving this (we live in the Kansas City area), and several times the homeless/beggar has immediately sat down and started eating.

  19. Here’s a response to a note I received. I make a few more points beyond the original post:

    Thanks for the note. …. Twenty bucks in our household is panic money, of course. But I once gave $20 to a panhandler in front of Actor’s theater, and knew he was buying alcohol with it. I was erring with compassion, so I understand.

    Let me just state two principles:

    1) First principle: There are bad people who will abuse the compassion of people, and we ought to do what we can do disable the evil they are doing, especially since it has the end result of discouraging real compassion and wasting money that could be given to the truly needy.

    This principle would mean that I need to learn about panhandlers and their stories, and have a reasonable response. In your case, an offer to meet them at a gas station would have done it. There are ways to offer Christian compassion and avoid the schemes of panhandlers.

    This seems no more of a sell out of the mind of Christ than using a bank or locking a car door or telling your toddler to not talk to strangers.

    Now mixed into this is the occasional truly needy person, but I am convinced that almost no truly needy person asks strangers for money on the street. They will find the more dignified options. Panhandlers act like panhandlers. We need to know how they act. I think we can be prepared to be very compassionate, but take measures to “unplug” the evil person’s lies and offer real help.

    I note that her story was well crafted to allow one response: cash. That’s a clear sign of what was happening. Just put yourself in the same position and ask if there is any situation where you wouldn’t accept other kinds of help: gas, groceries, assistance from a police officer, etc.

    2) Second principle: Compassion must be mixed with prudence and wisdom.

    Erring on the side of compassion is a good principle, but do I give away my car to someone who asks? My house? My savings? I am not being extreme. Just demonstrating that it becomes obvious that prudence and wisdom have to make an appearance at some point. Erring can be $20 to $2000. At some point we need to take a more balanced approach so that we aren’t being abused and calling it love. That’s what this generally is, with the panhandler as the demanding abuser and the Christian buying peace of mind. That’s not how it works. We can construct another interpretation, but that’s not how compassionate sharing should happen.

    In my situation, I know the power of $20, and I am prepared to be compassionate….but not to be dictated to. Emotional extortion shouldn’t gain a person $20 on the outside shot they are telling the truth. This is a skillful use of the religious person’s conscience against them. Again, compassion has options: I’ll buy your groceries. I’ll meet you at a gas station. But can I call the hospital and verify your story? Can I ask the police to verify your story? Why not? Am I giving you this or are you demanding it?

    Compassionate is my response to a need, not an extorted response to a dictated situation. That would be like me saying to Dr. ——- he must err with compassion and give me all the benefits I’ve listed somewhere, or someone saying that because of Christian compassion I must keep a student that breaks our rules. I hear this every week from some parent. We’ve given scholarships, forgiveness, second chances, and they still try to extort free room and board from us. Compassion isn’t me taking a beating. It’s someone being truthful and as responsible as possible and me meeting their need when I don’t have to.

    Interesting subject. It does concern me that it falls into the category of “I don’t want to feel bad, so I’ll pay off” category of liberal responses to problems. Why can’t we have a solution where we both feel good? I check out the story. You get a tank of gas?

    peace and have a great week

  20. BrianinBC says:

    I have a story to share. I live in Greater Vancouver, the downtown East Side of Vancouver is among the most crime ridden, drug addled, frightening, mentally ill filled areas in all of North America. It is truly a land of the walking dead. You can watch people openly shooting heroin into the arteries on their bare feet in the middle of the sidewalk from you car driving down the street. Since the climate is relatively mild in Vancouver, it is possible to live on the streets without freezing to death and hence a great number of homeless migrate here. There are multiple reasons why they are there and multiple agencies to help out. This is just a bit of background.

    My wife and I don’t typically give money to people on the street. Due to work backgrounds, personal experiences etc. we know that a great many of the aggressive panhandlers are indeed professionals, (like the girl from my highschool who went downtown on weekends to earn money begging while wearing $450 boots and the squeegee guy on the streetcorner who parked his car several blocks away so people would’t realize he owned a car). Nevertheless, one time stands out in my memory as a “God” moment.

    We were walking down the street going back to our car, a panhandler walked up to us on the sidewalk and asked us if we could spare some money for food. He said he hadn’t eaten in days (and he looked it). My wife got out some money and handed it to him and spoke to him briefly. His eyes teared-up as he said that he was HIV positive and that she was the first person in such a long time to actually look at him and treat him like a person, he was so used to being totally, completely and utterly ignored…as if he didn’t even exist…truly a walking ghost. He thanked her immensely and went on his way.

    We spoke as we continued to the car and she said, something told me I needed to give him the money. It was really weird, I just knew I had to give it to him. We talked about this very discussion…when to give money when you know it is likely going to be used on drugs. We then drove through the downtown East Side on our way home and looked up just in time to see the panhandler walking out of a small cafe with a huge tortilla wrap in his hands.

    …in a sea of thousands of individuals in a city of 2 Million, God allowed us to see that the faithfulness of listening to that small voice and stepping out in faith to do something which didn’t make sense was indeed what He had called us to do.

    We agree that discernment is key, but perhaps we’d add, that discernment is listening for that voice which directs you to do the right thing for that circumstance. Listen for it and step out in faith when it directs you to act…no matter how strange it might seem.

  21. You give a good example of the leading of the spirit. Two years ago I gave $100 to a student at our school in obedience to the Spirit’s leading and it was a special experience.

    I would urge all Christians to have discernement so that help is real help, and not a response to extortion.

  22. Andy Chance says:

    Are there any books or resources you would recommend for ministry to the poor?

  23. disputatio says:

    We do not need discernment to distinguish between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor. Rather, we need discernment to distinguish between the poor and the sluggard. Those we call “undeserving poor” the Bible refers to as sluggard or lazy man. We encounter this individual on many occasions throughout the book of Proverbs, and not once is he blessed with the appellation “poor.” If we understand this, then the only principle needed when dealing with the poor is undiluted generosity. Open your hand wide to the poor, but let the sluggard destroy himself by his own foolishness.

  24. “There are thousands of unmedicated, untreated mentally ill people on the streets of America.

    How in the world is that fact something I need to “be careful” with? ”

    Well, in your article, you’ve included the mentally ill in with those that you don’t consider “truly poor” – as if they have chosen to be mentally ill. My 8 year old has not chosen to have a mental illness, and early and agressive treatment will hopefully prevent him from becoming one of these apparently unworthy individuals you’re referring to. But 40 years from now, when he’s alone in this world, and is 30 years past his lifetime maximum coverage for mental illness and is basically uninsurable, I hope people are a little less ignorant and a little more compassionate.

  25. >…as if they have chosen to be mentally ill.

    That’s not my conclusion at all. I’m describing the variety of reasons people end up on the streets. I certainly never implied they have chosen to be mentally ill.

    I’ve written an entire series on the Christian and mental illness. I’ve done many posts on Christians and psych meds. My wife deals with depression and my dad was mentally ill. I am the last person who believes someone has chosen to be mentally ill.

    I’m sorry for your situation, but I am in no way promoting the point of view you are saying I’m promoting.

  26. We belong to a downtown church. There are people regularly coming to the door asking for food or money. The response that has been decided on by the church eldership is to require that the person become a member of our community.

    The poor that the early church looked after, and the widows that they supported, were Jews. They were the poor of their own “family”. If any person wishes to come be a part of our community, become accountable to our body and leadership, and be part of our body, then the resources of the entire church are at their disposal.

    But, as has been said above, most (nearly all) really don’t want that, they just want the cash.

    Note that this isn’t about forcing them to be Christians or hear the gospel or anything. I truly believe the “you can have food if you sit through a service” angle is wrong. We need to show people Christlike love, not lecture at them. The best way you can show people that sort of love is by welcoming them into your loving community. They’ll hear the message and more importantly they’ll see it.

  27. I will be very generous with the beggars on occasion. We will see one in our neighborhood, go home and build a nice little care package that will insure the cold and hunger will not afflict them.

    I don’t give money.

    I think that it is important to acknowledge people as being human. Even if they have no interest in the items I offer, the fact that somebody cares enough to go out of the way to make a sacrifice for them has to mean something in their hearts.

    One of the local professional beggars uses a hat that we gave him to decorate his dog. I am sure that the curiosity factor of his ‘mascot’ earns him some extra change. The local service station tells us that he is making between 100-300 dollars per day that he is out there..

    The fact of the matter is that I have so much stuff that I don’t use, that there is no sense in holding onto it if there is the slightest possibility that one of these folks could be blessed through it.

  28. It’s an interesting question – Who are the deserving poor?

    Is it the poor person who was not to blame in getting into their situation?

    Is it the honest poor person, or the grateful poor person?

    Is it the poor person who will use the help you give him to clean up his problems?

    What’s a gospel centred response?

    Well how did Jesus meet me? He met me when I was to blame for destroying my life through my sin. He met me despite the fact that I was a liar. He met me when I had no gratitude whatsoever for Him coming to earth to give his life for me, and was in fact hostile towards Him. He met me when I had no desire or ability to clean up the mess I had made.

    What’s the implication? Well I think nobody is a “deserving” poor person – just like I am not a “deserving” sinner of God’s grace to me. BUT, God is merciful in spite of who we are. Sometimes it may be more merciful to withdraw aid from somebody than it is to keep giving it. But I think the gospel should radically alter our perception of people and reasons for continuing and withdrawing aid. Let mercy limit mercy.

    Jesus comes to meet us in the mess we’ve made. He showed mercy and compassion to the outcasts, and only after they had encountered him there did he call them to leave their life of sin.

    I know that it gets complex to work out at times – and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but who will bring Jesus to the panhandlers if the Christians are waiting for them to leave their lives of sin first?

  29. Final Thoughts:

    1) Americans have little idea what money actually does. They look at handing over money much like giving a tip. They resist asking about the power and ethics involved in the use of money.

    2) “Give to him who asks….” Do you believe that this means EVERY kind of asking and every kind of person? C’mon. To say there is no acknowledgment in the Bible between a liar bilking an old woman of a $100 and a person who can’t buy groceries is ridiculous. “Asking” isn’t a moral neutral, and the entire focus doesn’t stop with me being willing to let go of money. Letting go of money is just PART of the picture. Nothing in this text means we take a neutral attitude towards panhandling or extortion.

    3) Talking about where Jesus meets us as compared to what is the situation when someone asks for money isn’t a simple, identical comparison. Jesus meets the underserving in grace, but I’m not convinced that Jesus meets a criminal taking money with the same actions as he meets a blind man.

    4) It saddens me to hear the vile tone of the comments I’ve had to delete. Some “conversation.” Talk about your angry, unthinking fundamentalists.

  30. Thanks for this article – very good advice.

  31. Fantastic post and dead-on.

  32. Interesting post and comments. While I lived in the US I think that my thoughts would have been similar, and my practice might have been similar as well. Although when it comes down to it, I don’t think that I had even one occasion in my small midwest hometown to test exactly how I would react to a request from a needy person.

    But now that I have lived most of my life in a third-world country I must say that these thoughts, responses, and comments are drastically influenced by North American Christian culture, and fail to even begin to think about the deeper issues.

    What if every single one of the people that asked you for a handout was, indeed, incredibly poor and absolutely needed help? The parenting test, the stewardship test, etc. don’t really give direction in that situation. Are we then going to help out in someway, or will we add yet another justification to not be generous and Christ-like?

    What if the person asking for help truly is needy, but is a Muslim or Buddhist that are asking for charity because it is part of their culture and religion? Are we to have compassion on them even though we might be perpetuating part of their false religious practices? The answer is not quite as simple as it seems…

    I am not a regular reader of your blog, but was directed here by a post over at Between Two Worlds. This is a subject that I deal with on a daily basis and am still working out the answers. I definitely don’t see it nearly as simplistic as you and your readers do.

    I see that you have Desiring God as one of your links. Our house church listened to one of Piper’s sermons on this subject on Palm Sunday. It is his message from 4/13/03 if you are interested. He has quite a different take than you do on the subject and one that challenged our group and all of our previous thoughts and practices. To summarize, Piper says that on judgement day when the Lord asks you, “What about the people that asked you for money?”, that you are probably not going to be too proud of an answer that is something like, “Well, I wasn’t taken in by those people” or “I developed a great list of diagnostic questions to see if they were for real”, etc. Piper said that the Lord is probably going to respond by saying that is a great imitation of the world. Even non-Christians give when people are worthy of receiving. We are supposed to be a little different, right?

    Anyway, just a few alternative thoughts since most of the comments were so homogeneous. As I said, I’m still working through how this should play out on a daily basis. The issue is not so simple.

  33. Steve said: “Well how did Jesus meet me? He met me when I was to blame for destroying my life through my sin. He met me despite the fact that I was a liar. He met me when I had no gratitude whatsoever for Him coming to earth to give his life for me, and was in fact hostile towards Him. He met me when I had no desire or ability to clean up the mess I had made.”

    My problem with this is that Jesus had an endless amount of grace that he could offer. If I had endless money I would have no problem give money to whoever asked of me. I think that some of this debate comes from the fact that most Christian are perfectly happy treating themselves to all sorts of luxury at the expense of the gospel. When they come upon a beggar it’s hard to love their neighbour as they love themselves without giving freely. Their guilt becomes more self-evident when they don’t give to others like they give to themselves. When Christians carefully conserve their money so that they can share it with the truly poor then it is far easier to say no to someone who wants to waste it. I personally don’t eat in restaurants because they are too expensive, even though I have the money available, so I’m not willing to give that to a beggar that wants to do just that. If you like to err on the side of generosity then please consider the fact that erring in generosity in this instance means that you can not be generous later with someone that conclusively needs your help.

    I think that Michael’s observation about how people will carelessly give $20 but not $200 is related to this as well. Many (but not all) Christians will drop $20 on themselves without a second thought. It’s really no wonder that they feel obligated to do this for other people as well.

    One last word before I get a bunch of defensive responses. First, I sure that not all Christians that give money are giving for these motivations but I’m convinced that a good percentage are.

  34. Being a victim of extortion is not giving.

    Supporting alcoholism and addiction that causes women and children to suffer is not the right thing to do. Ever.

    Feeling good about ourselves as Christians isn’t the bottom line. Think.

    The word “deserving” doesn’t mean what some of you people are making it to mean.

    A criminal deserves a lot of things, but he’s going to jail if he rapes my neighbor.

    Does a lying professional con artist “deserve” all the cash in my wallet? Do I go home feeling really good about following Jesus after I have rewarded his CRIME?

    I agree that other countries have many more truly hungry on the streets than we have. But we have a lot of them and they DESERVE our BEST COMPASSION. Not our “good feelings” compassion.

    This thread is close to being over.

  35. I really appreciate you touching on this subject. It’s such a ubiquitous question for Christians, that is, how do we Biblically respond to the beggar who approaches us on the street?

    I do think that we should consult wisdom when giving. I don’t think it’s right to take Jesus’ command to “give to the one who asks” in isolation from the whole counsel of Scripture. Others have already noted the passages regarding the sluggard in Proverbs. Even Paul said “if a man won’t work, neither let him eat.”

    To get to the point, I think the over-arching principle in how we respond to beggars must be love. That is, love seeks to give what people need, not necessarily what they ask for. Non of us wanted salvation through Christ when we were unregenerate, rebellious sinners, but that is what God gave us, because that is ultimately what we needed the most. And even as Christians, God very often does not give to us what we ask, but He always gives what we need.

    I confess that I have often given money to a beggar not knowing if I was just enabling him as an addict or a sluggard just because it was a lot easier to give a few bucks than to take the time to find out where they’re coming from and try to get them the help they really need, including sharing the Gospel with them, which again is what they ultimately need the most.

    Thanks again for bringing this subject up. It’s so important for the Body to seek Scriptural wisdom on issues like this. I would love to see more churches take on issues like this from the pulpit for the benefit of their flocks.

  36. >> “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.”

    I’m a former case manager and now a member of an evangelical street outreach ministry team. Some of the poorest folks that I know are addicted and/or mentally ill, and they live on the streets in my town. Some are also con artists. Most all them have criminal records. Every one of them is loved by Jesus, and He came to free them from bondage. That’s the message that they so desperately need to hear.

    It’s hard to hear the message when you’re hungry. And it’s hard to hear it when no one is sharing it with you. And it’s hard to hear it when people are avoiding you and not living the message in front of you.

    Unless you know their individual situation, giving cash to panhandlers may hurt more than it helps, if it’s used to feed an addiction, so I advise most people not to give cash, unless they feel strongly led by the Holy Spirit to do so.

    I do encourage people to make eye contact, speak a kind word, see the panhandler as Jesus would, as a child of God. Maybe go in a group of two or three, have a conversation, offer to pray for the person. If they’re hungry, buy them a meal and eat together, or at least sit and talk with them while they eat. If the panhandler has another need, find out how to meet it. Learn about the homeless service agencies in your town, and find out where to refer people for help. Invite the panhandler to church. Don’t be afraid to treat someone the way that Jesus would. Take a risk.

    One of my homeless friends told me about standing on a street corner and watching as drivers averted their eyes from him and people crossed the street to the other sidewalk so that they wouldn’t have to walk by him. “No one ever talks to me,” he said. He was so lonely.

    Yes, aggressive panhandlers are different. In our community, they’re almost always substance abusers who need to get high, and they can get ugly when you say “no.” We have a well-enforced panhandling ordinance to deal with this type of behavior, and it’s usually best to avoid panhandlers who are displaying it. But… they’re not always like that. Do you see that same panhandler when he or she is not looking for a fix? When they’re in a different mood? More approachable? I know I do. And that’s when I try to talk to them. And sometimes I’ll say, “So, the other day when I saw you…” And that just might be a good ministry opportunity. Sometimes people get sick and tired of being sick and tired. And they’re ready to escape. There are probably organizations in your community that can help with substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment. Find out.

    Jesus loves addicts, mentally ill people, con artists, criminals and panhandlers. I am so thankful. Because I love them, too. And if Jesus could save me, I know He can save them, too.

    Peace to you, CM

  37. Great post. Professional beggars are a real nuisance here in Pittsburgh, especially around the college campuses. You should see the feeding frenzy when a new batch of freshmen comes in.

    I don’t give money to panhandlers, period. That way I don’t have to figure out who’s who. Instead, I’ve begun (better late than never) volunteering at a local soup kitchen. I do make one exception to my rule, though. I do occasionally give money to buskers (street musicians). They’re providing a service to the community and my change is a small payment for that work.

  38. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the thieves help themselves to what the traveler had. The Samaritan willingly gave what he had to the battered traveler. The thieves aren’t looked upon in this parable positively. People who try to place a guilt trip on someone who doesn’t give has not truly reached the point where he(or she) reaizes that he(or she) is poor and in need. A person who has will be grateful for whatever he or she can get.

  39. Now you’ve piqued my curiosity — comments you’ve had to delete? I wonder what they contained? What is there about this topic that would prompt abusive posts?

    Your post prompted questions certainly — but abuse? The mind boggles!

  40. Wow! There are many fascinating comments here. I have learned from each person.

    When I was an undergraduate, I lived in the dormitories for three years. I was on the “ten meal a week” plan; therefore, I walked several blocks to the local grocery store once or twice a week in order to stock up on fruits, vegetables and other food. Homeless people often asked me for money. I offered them an apple, a banana, an orange, or whatever else I had in my grocery bags. Usually they were appreciative. If they weren’t appreciative, well, that wasn’t my problem.

    Currently, I have some $1.00 McDonalds gift certificates and pamphlets published by my city government that list resources that help homeless people. When I see a homeless person at a gas station, convenience store, etc., I give these things to him/her. Sometimes, I give homeless people bottled water. Usually they are appreciative. If they aren’t appreciative, well, nothing I can do about that!

    I just do the best I can by doing what makes sense to me.

  41. My husband pointed this article out to me, and as recent transplants to a big city, it’s certainly good advice 🙂

    My only problem is in implementing it- you see, I am frequently caught off-guard by panhandlers who corner me in a semi-deserted parking lot at night while I’m, say, getting my groceries into the car… In which case, I’m not supporting their habits or showing mercy so much as buying a sense of security.

  42. rochelle says:

    This is so true. I live outside of Nashville and it’s becoming a city that the homeless migrate to. The local law enforcement have actually had to tell people not to hand out money because of the problem developing through the growing homeless population. The homeless missions are so important and it’s so better to send the homeless to a place where they can get real help. It will also help separate those who truly need help from those aggressive panhandlers.

  43. Beth, do keep your cellphone handy (and on) and some mace on your key chain. 33 Years in NYC has made me specifically nervous in that arena.

  44. Good topic. No easy answers. I spent four years in the early 1980s as a community minister in Atlanta. Street people were my parish so to speak. Here’s how I learned to deal with this difficult and complex situation.
    If my relationship to this person is based on a monetary transaction, then I can never be sure that they will use the money wisely. However, if I seek to understand who they are, and part of this is checking out their stories, then I may have the opportunity to treat them with dignity in the midst of trying to help them. I have no clear sense of the percentage of people on the street who choose to be there. I had many tell me that they simply didn’t want the responsibility of taking care of things. Others were clearly mentally ill, others lack an intellectual capacity to deal with the complexities of life. Many were illiterate, some victims of tragedies that destroyed their lives. Let me tell one story and finish with a comment.
    One day I was leaving the church, approaching my car when a man who was obviously living on the streets came up to me. I could smell the stench of liquor and body odor on him. He pointed to my UNC-Chapel Hill window sticker on my car. He said that he went there. My first inclination was to think, yeah, another come on. He then made a couple comments that told me that he at least knew the campus. So, we talked for about 15 minutes. His name was Berkeley Tulloch. He had been a PH.D student in philosophy, when one Sunday morning his wife and son were killed in an auto accident on their way to church. The loss crushed him and he ended up drinking himself out of the doctoral program and all his worldly assets. He was living on the streets scraping up money to by wine. He was honest and admitted the reality of his situation. Over the course of the next year, I met with Berkeley frequently to talk about his situation and how to understand the tragedy of his life in terms of God’s grace. He eventually decided that he wanted to join the church and give his life to Christ. I baptized him. He was still an alcoholic, still living on the streets, but he had taken a step forward. When things got really bad for him, I’d get him a room in one of the hotels in the neighborhood, and sit with him until he got better. Then one day, he came to the church and told me he was ready to go home. So, I put him on a bus to Raleigh where he checked himself in to the state mental hospital, Dorothea Dix. He called me a year later from his brother’s house in Sanford saying that he had been in the hospital for three months, had been alcohol free for the year, and that he was now having a hard time living in a house. He had decided that he was going to go to Durham, and live back on the streets and help others that were like him. That was the last I heard from him. I’ve never forgotten him.
    When someone comes up to me, I look for some spark of responsibility in their eyes. There needs to be some logic to the story. Leaps of logic are reason for me to question the story. And when they tell me that they have exhausted their options, I also question that judgment. In essence, what is happening in many of these situations is that they want me to take responsibility for their lives. Even if I give them some money, I refuse to take responsibility for their actions. I tell them this directly. I treat them as an equal, because unless they are mentally or emotionally unable to do so, they will never break the cycle of homeless until they decide to do so themselves. I don’t give to everyone. I never give to those who smell of alcohol. I check their stories the best I can. I ask questions, and then act leaving the results up to God. Everyone of these encounters I feel are a test of my humanity. Do I cave to fear, guilt or pity? Or do I treat this person with dignity, even if I choose not to give them money. I know its complicated. And what I learned from Berkeley is that I don’t have all the answers and cannot take responsibility for the outcome of the choices that they make. As with all our relationships, we can care for people, yet if they choose not to accept our caring as it is given, then there is not much we can do about it.

  45. Mike Robinson says:

    I just read your post and a great number of the comments and I really feel that they are helpful. I currently live in Costa Rica and we constantly have beggars coming to our door asking for money/food/clothing. Life here is completely different than in the US because there are really, truly poor people here who have no money even the $0.25 it costs to take a bus to get back home. On the other hand, there are many more people who will take advantage of someone at any opportunity they have, just like in the US. There are people here who would rob their own mothers if they thought they had anything valuable on them.

    My girlfriend’s mom told me a story the other day that they had a beggar come to their door and the first thing he did was admit that he was on drugs and they wanted help, but he said that in order to be allowed into the rehibilitation center, he needed a towel and a bar of soap and that was what he asked for. They gave him what he asked, but then they thought about it later and decided to call up one of these centers and they said that they do not require anything to be let in and what he said is a common thing for a beggar to say. Since the drug addicts living on the street rarely have a means of cleaning themselves up, they will trade a bar of soap and a towel amongst themselves for another hit of whatever drug they’re on.

    Another common thing that they will do is ask for uncooked food so that they can take it back to their children and cook it at home. They will then use this food to trade with other beggars/addicts for more drugs. I remember once there was someone who came to my door and asked for something to eat and said that he was starving. I decided to go in and make him a sandwich and came back a couple of minutes later and gave it to him. I asked him if it was ok and he said it was, but still gave me a weird look when I handed it to him. As I turned around to walk back to the door of my house, I watched him toss it into the bushes as he walked away.

    Another even more saddening thing that they do down here is that the parents will send out their young children (and I mean young, like 5-8 years old) to go begging for them in the city. They dirty themselves up and wear old clothing and no shoes and walk into restaurants or other places where people are mainly stationary and give them some sad story about being hungry and wanting money and how their parents abandoned them. Almost any tourist that sees them will immediately pull out a couple of dollars. Little do they know, their parents are hiding around the corner, ready to take this money their children earned to buy themselves drugs with and maybe give a little bit of rice and beans to the children at the end of the day.

    With all this said, though, I really believe that we need direction by the Spirit of God. I usually err on the side of caution instead of the side of generosity, but after reading this, I’m probably going to have to start to change that. The ones who are on drugs are responsible for their own sin and I should not deprive someone who is truly in need so that I can prevent a junkie from doing his drugs for a couple hours. In conclusion, I’m going to have to pray about this.

  46. This is really great stuff. I have always tended to just give to anyone who asks and trust that the Lord brought that person into my path and that He will have His way with them. Normally, if I have time, I try and make them listen to the gospel and converse before handing over the cash. I believe that the end of every charitable activity is to preach the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation. I don’t want anyone to think I’m giving because I’m a generous person but, instead, because God lives within me and has compassion on them and sees their motives for asking as well as mine for giving.

    On the other hand, I have also been guilty of a complete lack of compassion in my heart and just tossed some money at them to clean my conscience. A victim of the Accuser of the brethren I suppose.

    I agree with Mike from the post above…we MUST go to the Lord with every opportunity, praying without ceasing and being fully convinced before Christ that we are doing His will as He leads us on. We simply do what we see Him doing…just as Christ ONLY did what He saw the Father doing. (John 5:19-20)

  47. Disagree:

    “Now mixed into this is the occasional truly needy person, but I am convinced that almost no truly needy person asks strangers for money on the street. They will find the more dignified options.”

    There are 0 dignified options. Just wanted to make that clear. The person who will treat you with dignity in that situation is a rare gem – even rarer to be a christian in my experience. (Lob me with rotten vegetables if you must, but I will not lie. I have experience with these things.)

    Agree:

    The essential thing is wisdom and the leading of the Holy Spirit. And you’re right, giving to panhandlers – especially aggresive ones dressed better than you are – is not necessarily the best choice. I believe the Holy Spirit will often back me up on that if you listen. (Right? Eh?)

    (For the record, one day I wasn’t listening and I was in Chicago for Free Tuesday at the art museum. This agressive man came up to me; he had a sweater on nicer than anything I’d ever owned! I gave him my french fries because I had no extra money – also because I was like a third of his size – which left me with barely enough money to get home, not even enough to buy more french fries… >

  48. Honestly, I think you need to re-read the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, not to mention Matt 19:23. I also think you have completely misunderstood and misinterpreted what and to whom Paul was writting in Thessalonians. There is a hardness descending on the heart of the church and it ties into the love of money. As an Orthodox friend wrote to me:
    “Bishop Seraphim, Fr. Lawrence, and Fr. Justin have all taught “Give to him who begs” (Matt. 5:42) coupled with “Judge not, that you not be judged” (Matt. 7:1). They have all said to give alms even if you think the person will abuse them – in other words, judge not. This is the consistent Orthodox teaching, falling under the domain of orthopraxis.”‘
    If you find you cannot give money then give something else. I have bought food for people and they have been grateful. Maybe they tried selling it later on, but the fault isn’t mine. Pride tells me to be offended, greed tells me to withhold my money, but these are sins. Give your time in soup kitchens, in organisations like the MCC. Spend time with these people, Jesus did.
    A lot of homeless people and addicts are mentally ill people whom have fallen through the cracks. I know this because I have known a couple of people close to me who have fallen prey to addiction through their illness. The system, even in Canada is not as easy to access as people think. It isn’t that easy to get someone committed or to get them good help. And even if they aren’t ill some people, to use an old saying from the South, have been down so long they never think to get up.
    Are there cons out there, yeah – I have known a couple. One of them is now legitimately homeless and quit crazy. But it isn’t for us to judge. Most homeless people aren’t cons, that’s a cop out. Mercy, compassion and grace – Christ was good enough to show it to us, who are we do otherwise?

  49. It’s not for us to judge?

    Send me your life savings. I need it more than you do.

    Don’t judge me. Just love me.

    🙂

    I’ll go tell the book of Proverbs it’s no longer needed.

  50. I think a key aspect of this issue, which one person touched on briefly, is the need to be led by the Holy Spirit. As a rule, I would prefer to “err” (so the speak) on the side of being generous. Although my husband and I have both given cash to panhandlers at various times, we sometimes referred them to homeless shelters, and I’ve given food on occasion (once I gave the panhandler a sandwitch I had bought for my lunch that I happened to have with me). There were times when my husband and I made sacrifices for needy people that would appear foolhardy, yet we did so upon God’s clear leading and direction. There was also a time when I was about to help a homeless person and felt a strong check in my spirit not to do so. This was a woman who panhandled regularly at my church, and she had asked to spend the night on my couch. Although my initial reaction was to say yes, I quickly sensed that I would have been in danger if I had allowed this. I am sure she was aware of shelters where she could have stayed, since the church staff would have referred her to these.