I regularly encounter several homeless people on my way to work. Often they are holding signs, earnestly asking for money. I am hesitant, because, though I want to help them, I don’t it want to be used for anything destructive, or to further enable and perpetuate their current situation. What is the right thing to do?
I’ve been exactly where you are. Let me tell you about it:
One afternoon I sat on a busy street in Los Angeles and couldn’t help but notice a homeless man sitting just across the way asking people for money. In the 30 minutes I was there I witnessed at least 12 people walk by him ignoring him altogether, one person give him some change and yet another uninvitedly begin praying over him. I was floored and couldn’t help but wonder what all of that must feel like.
Three hours later I found myself at a gas station with my tank below empty. I was relieved when my car made it to the pump, but panicked when I realized my debit card was nestled at home in the pocket of yesterday’s jeans. I sat there for a moment wondering whether to call someone to bring me money or simply ask the half a dozen people at the station.
I finally gathered my courage (and swallowed my pride) enough to walk over to a woman nearby and ask her if she might be able to help. She apologized profusely explaining that she’d just put her last $20 into her own tank. I thanked her and moved on to another man. He was kind, quickly pulled out $5 and even offered to pump the gas for me. Sweet relief!
Only it wasn’t. As I sat in my car I couldn’t help but compare the two encounters, seeing the great chasm between the way I was treated compared to the treatment of the homeless man I saw.
In Matthew 5:42, Jesus implores us to “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (ESV) Never once does it mention the heart and the intentions of the recipient, only the giver. When considering other stories told in the Gospel it’s safe to assume those who were beggars were often outcasts, just as they are treated today.
This stance begs the obvious question: What if I’m taken advantage of? And the simplest answer is that you might be. I remember one time, in my early 20s, giving a homeless friend of mine money, only to later learn that he bought a Playboy with it. At the time I was working 16 hours a day between two jobs, so every part of me wanted to scream at him. That was my hard-earned money he wasted.
Instead of giving him a piece of my mind I decided to talk to him about it, to treat him like the friend I claimed he was. We talked and I shared why it bothered me and he apologized, but in his apology he said something that struck me, “I’m sorry I hurt you, Rachel, I honestly would never do that intentionally. I understand now how my choice made you feel, but when I did it I simply thought of it as a gift that I was free to use how I chose.”
I froze. He was right. This wasn’t how I would have wanted him to spend the gift, but I imagine I spend money, time, energy and perhaps even spiritual gifts in ways and on things I probably shouldn’t either. It doesn’t make it okay, but isn’t that where grace comes in?
I believe there’s something I often call tangible grace—the belief that even if my money, food or other resources are taken for granted or used in a way I would not prefer, that somewhere in the exchange grace would be received.
Having said all of this I do believe there are times when declining to give might be the right option. When the discerning voice in your gut tells you it doesn’t feel right, trust it. It may not be good judgment or stewardship to give cash to a person who appears to be harming themselves with substances. There are also times in which you simply don’t have the money to give. In this case the best way to receive people is with kindness and grace. Look the person in the eye, consider their story and background and that they more than likely didn’t dream of this life when they were on the grade school jungle gym. Just like the woman who couldn’t give me gas money, there are ways to love those in need simply by the words we offer.
We as Christians have been entrusted with loving our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness. It is our responsibility to step back and consider what that looks like in our own lives; trusting God to use our gifts and resources as a means to usher in His grace to those in need.
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