In Sunday school, there was a discussion about Matthew 5:42, where Jesus says that you should give to the one who asks you and not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
I posed the following scenario to a number of people:
On that very afternoon, you are walking downtown about a block from a popular fast-food “restaurant,” where a modest lunch costs about three dollars. A man approaches you politely. He is well dressed, but he looks like he has spent a lot of time on the street. He says he is hungry and asks you if you can spare a dollar. You have plenty of money, but you realize that you only have twenty cents in change and your smallest bill is a five-dollar bill.
What do you do?
The correct answer depends on many factors, including the hardness of your heart, your capacity for compassion, as well as the man’s social skills and appearance. Here is how you voted, with my usual crackpot observations.
- No one said, Give the man the twenty cents.
- This isn’t enough money to buy bubble gum, let alone food.
- It might give him the impression that you are taunting him, which makes his situation worse.
- 31% of them said, Give the man five dollars.
- This is generous, and it is sufficient money for a meal.
- This shows you understand that there are two parts to this moral problem. First, how you react to a person in need, and second, how he handles what he is given. The second part of the problem is not for you to solve. You don’t help a maladjusted person by taking away their responsibilities, but by giving them responsibilities.
- The man may be so shabbily dressed that the manager throws him out before he has a chance to buy food.
Once when I was stopped for a red light, I saw a man holding a cardboard sign that said, “will work for food.” I gave him a large bill. He thanked me and said, “I haven’t eaten in days.” Then his voice broke as he added, “you won’t believe how unkind people are.”
- 3% of them said, Don’t give the man anything, because he might be a drunk or a mental patient.
- I wonder if this makes sense, because if the man is a drunk or a mental patient, he is in even greater need. How can you abandon a person in such great need?
- If your personal safety is your highest priority, then do you really trust that Jesus will protect you when you obey His commandments?
- 25% of them said, Walk with the man to the fast-food restaurant and buy him lunch.
- The man might resent you for not trusting him to spend the money properly. He knows that a lot of people think he uses the handouts to buy liquor, and if that is not the case for him, he may become indignant and refuse the opportunity to preserve what dignity he has left.
- The man might be so alienated from people that he can’t take you up on your offer, for fear you will reject him at the last moment, adding devastation to his hunger.
- The man’s appearance might be so shabby that he might not be able to enter the restaurant and buy food, so he may be very grateful for this extra help.
Homeless people are deficient in people skills, and sometimes that is their only problem. The man might have had so many bad experiences with rejection that he can’t get up the courage to go in the restaurant without an escort.
Recently during a severe winter in Washington, DC, a charity group tried to give blankets to street people. The street people were afraid of them and refused the blankets. Some of them froze to death. If a street person refuses something they desperately need, just set it down next to them and walk away. As soon as you are out of sight, they will take it.
- 33% of them said, Walk with the man to the fast-food restaurant and buy lunch for both of you.
- This scenario has the same complications as the one above.
- The man may be severely self-conscious about socializing with you and may turn down the opportunity because he is afraid of you.
- The man may be so alienated from people that even his hunger won’t allow him to trust you long enough to eat with you.
- The man may be grateful for your company; if this is the case, he would be excessively polite and would attempt the very best table manners.
- The man may become elated by the experience, and you might be frightened when he becomes expansive and overly friendly, even though it is harmless.
- No one said, Tell the man to get a job and give him nothing.
- This really just restates the problem, now doesn’t it? When you say this, the man will think you are clueless and he’ll wonder why he’s the street person and you aren’t. Street people aren’t lazy, they are just severely maladjusted, burned out, alienated, and in great distress.
- This runs the risk of Matthew 25:44-46.
The problem with being a street person is that there is no way out. You can’t get a job without an address, and you can’t get an address without a job.
I remember a raggedy old woman who sat down at the piano in a church and skillfully played beautiful classical music from memory. She had been a well-educated housewife until her husband simply stranded her downtown on purpose. She waited for him on a park bench, but he never came and neither did anyone else. She gradually became a bag lady.
I once gave several dollars in pocket change to a young man on the street who thanked me for my generosity and followed me for two blocks, begging me for a job doing anything, even raking leaves or sweeping floors.
- 8% of them said, Something else not listed here.
Victoria Shepard wrote:
I had a couple quick comments about the poll (Matthew 5:42 this week). I had to check “something else not listed here” because you left out at least one important choice. When it came to buying the man food, you neglected to give the choice of telling him to wait and you would bring him back something. I tried letting a homeless person come with me into a fast food restaurant. Never again! The guy demanded specific food and what I was prepared to buy was not good enough. I ended up taking the food with me (he said he didn’t want it) and giving it to another homeless person further down the street.
I can’t say I’ve ever been approached by someone asking for food so I don’t know exactly what I would do. As a rule of thumb, I occasionally buy food or give money to homeless people I see. I usually prefer to give food because money can be used for drugs. When I lived in San Francisco I made a point of buying a meal for someone every time payday rolled around. On a cold day I might buy coffee for someone. I do this because I was homeless once and I promised God that when my life got better I would help out these people.
Notice Victoria’s last sentence. If you are unkind to street people, the Holy Spirit may decide you need a practicum and may let you try it out yourself.