“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’” Matthew 25: 34-45
I used to hold the opinion that we should not give money to people who are begging. The assumption was that what they really need is food and if I just gave them money they might use it for alcohol or drugs. It wasn’t that I was stingy. I would buy them food or other things but just not give them money. I remember the first time I ever had this perspective challenged. I was working with Cutco Cutlery while an undergraduate. When I was doing an appointment at someone’s house, it is amazing the discussions you can get into when sharpening knives, we got into a discussion about how to help the homeless. My client put forth the idea, which was new to me, of just giving them some money and leaving what they do with the money between them and God. She was Catholic so it wasn’t too hard for this born-and-raised Baptist boy to push the idea aside… at least for the short term. The idea stuck with me over the years though.
When I lived in NYC, the question of how to handle panhandling was ever-present. There were certainly people who took advantage of begging. I remember one guy who was asking for help with some particular story but wouldn’t go to the store with me to get what he said he needed. I saw him the next day with the same story. I also remember a woman who was asking for money for diapers for her child. I didn’t give her cash but I took her to the store and bought her some diapers. I saw her at some point later asking again for diapers. It was close enough to when I bought them that I wondered if she was scamming but not so close that I was certain. When in NYC, I tried to give some money to people who asked when I could. To be honest, I was so poor at that point that giving anything was a burden. But at the same time, my family and I had an apartment. We didn’t sleep in the shelter or on the subway. I always tried to keep that in mind. But, my heart often wasn’t right.
In today’s evangelical culture, it is often hard for us to have the proper attitude toward those in need. Republicanism and evangelicalism have so merged that it is hard to tell the difference in the ideologies. We have a culture and religion of entitlement. But, I mean that in a very different way than how the term is often pejoratively used. We live in a culture where we are entitled to what is ours, to what we earn. That is and seems fair enough. But, it also bleeds over to our theology. We often believe that if someone doesn’t have it, it is their fault. This always makes me think first of Job’s friends and how they were sure he had done something to cause his misfortune. It also reminds me of the Disciples who asked Jesus, “who has sinned to cause a man’s blindness.” That is just our natural way of thinking. There is something reasonable about it. Yet, it is wrong.
The Old Testament tithing system was set up, in part, to remind Israel that what they had was not theirs but from God. This is something that we, like the Israelites, forget. Our house, our car, and our nice clothes all belong to us by the grace of God. We were fortunate enough to be born in a wealthy nation with the ability to work hard and have our hard work rewarded. But, many of the poor also work very hard, often harder than the middle class or the wealthy. But, this entitlement of ours has allowed us to forget that the blessings we have been awarded are just that…blessings, gifts from God. They are not something we are entitled to or can presume upon. The saying, “There but for the Grace of God go I” should not imply to us that others are without God’s grace but that we have been differently graced by God. We think that a “life well lived” entitles us to prosperity or at least comfort. Maybe we should look at the trials of the prophets and question our assumptions.
Two years ago I went through a very hard time professionally and personally. Without going into too much detail, my finances and church relationships were damaged and, in some instances, destroyed because I chose to follow Christ rather than church culture. John the Baptist‘s death was actually great comfort to me. He was a man who Jesus said was as great as anyone who had ever lived, yet his life was taken; his head was taken. This reminded me that the rewards we earn here on this earth are not the rewards that ultimately matter to God. Our prosperity here is not an indicator of our worth before God.
We need to remember this when we meet the homeless. And, we need to remember Christ’s admonition in Matthew 25.
So often, I hear Christians talking about the poor and homeless as if it is their choice to be poor and homeless. No doubt there are a few who make that choice. But, the number is small. When I first came back to California from New York City, I had an art studio in Sacramento. One day a homeless man came around the studio. What struck me was that he was a gentleman who was clearly mentally impaired. I brought him into my studio and made him a sandwich and gave him some birthday cake which I happened to have.
I had a similar experience the other day when after taking my son to Barnes & Noble there was a man at the corner asking for food for his dog. I had a single dollar bill on me so I rolled down my window and gave it to him. I was struck by how he struggled to thank me. He stammered and could barely get the words out. Then he limped back to the corner. This is a man who we have failed as a society. We are a wealthy nation. There is no reason that a person who is mentally and physically impaired such as this man should have to beg at a street corner in January.
I thought about this more and more as I made the short drive home. I slowly became furious over the plight of this man and the conditions that have allowed us to focus on our entitlements rather than our responsibilities. My wife helped me put together some food and some dog food to take back to this man. Of course, by the time I got back to where he had been, the sun had set and he was gone. I thought about how I try to give whenever I run into someone. A couple of dollars here, a five there. Heck, I even gave a twenty to a guy once when I felt I was led to give and had nothing else. I remember the shocked joy on his face. I don’t know if he bought food or Vodka but I’ve become convinced that his stewardship isn’t my responsibility before God. It is his. I also realized that despite all this, over the last year, I have probably given less than $50 to the homeless. I need to do more. I have allowed my own sense of entitlement and comfort to limit my generosity.
Sadly, the assumption about the homeless is often that they are up to no good. All they really want is drugs or alcohol. No doubt that is true sometimes. I still try to buy food and such when I can. But, I can’t let my haste keep me from giving a dollar here or there. Or, more importantly of finding a more significant way to help. Jesus said that when we help those who are less fortunate we are helping Him. Maybe we should think that way and not assume that those in need are ne’er-do-wells who just want drugs and alcohol.
I have a friend, Jim, from middle school, who has had a rough time recently and walked from Nevada to Seattle as a way to exorcise some personal demons. He tells the story of when one night, as he was camping, a homeless guy came up. They talked for a while and Jim offered him a little food or soda and a cigarette. But, what Jim noticed was that all this guy cared about was that someone was talking to him, treating him as a human. Jim wasn’t averting his eyes as he rushed past. He wasn’t treating him as invisible. Jim recognized this gentleman’s humanity and treated him as a fellow human.
It strikes me that we Christians, who claim to believe that all humans are created in the image of God, tend to overt our eyes and fail to recognize the humanity and Imago Dei in people. I’m guilty. I think most of us are.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on January 17, 2013, and has been lightly edited and updated.