Did Jesus Tell Us to Give to Every Panhandler?
Good Monday morning. If you are driving to work or to school, or walking the dog, welcome back, and thanks for making the podcast part of your routine. We start this week with a question from a listener named Kate who lives in the bustling city of Cape Town: “Pastor John, hello! I appreciate you and your ministry from down here in South Africa, a country with an unemployment rate at 35 percent — a rate often mentioned as the highest in the world. On the ground, navigating beggars is daily life for us.
Here’s a daily scenario. You’re sitting in your car at a stoplight. Someone approaches your window to ask for money or food. You sit facing forward, ignoring them to focus on the traffic light ahead, until you finally drive off. Every time I do this, something doesn’t feel right here, especially with regards to Luke 6:30 — we should give to everyone who asks. But then what about 2 Thessalonians 3:10, a text that calls for diligent work, or else you will not eat? I listened to APJ 80, “How to Handle Panhandlers,” from over nine years ago, but there you didn’t address this second text. And I feel pulled between them. What suggestions would you have to offer me?”
Before I give some specific suggestions for how to put together Jesus’s command to give to everyone who begs from you (Luke 6:30), and Paul’s command that those who are unwilling to work should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10), let me lay a little bit of foundation that I think Jesus wants us to hear. And I’m really preaching to myself here, mainly as I’ve, over the years, analyzed my heart in dealing with folks who stand on the corner. I walk by them almost every day. So, she’s not alone in South Africa. Here in the middle of Minneapolis, I deal with this on foot, not just in the car, which it makes it even more poignant, I think.
I think that Jesus’s radical, sometimes unqualified, commands are intended especially — not only, but especially — to sever the nerve of our deep, deep, deep selfishness as human beings. He meant to expose the most fundamental problem with human nature — John Piper’s human nature — namely, our sinful condition that consists essentially in a deep bondage to self-exaltation, self-preservation, worldly self-gratification, all of which more or less conceals a self-asserting resistance to God’s right to tell us what’s good for us and to be for us what’s good for us.
“I think Jesus’s radical commands are intended especially to sever the nerve of our deep selfishness.”
I think Jesus cares more about exposing and healing this disease of our evil self-centeredness than he does about working out all the details of how our healing and liberation from self will express itself in ways that help other people — like the way we deal with panhandlers, or the way we deal with idle busybodies in church who won’t work.
Severing Deep Selfishness
Maybe you can sense what I see if I read the passage that Kate referred to in her question — namely, Luke 6:30. But I’ll do the surrounding verses so we can really feel the force of what Jesus says:
I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. (Luke 6:27–31)
Now that last command is what we call the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And that Golden Rule is really an alternate form of Jesus’s second great commandment in Matthew 22:39, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I think doing unto others as you want them to do to you means, “Take the measure of your own self-regard, your own self-care, your own self-comfort, and make that the measure of your regard and your care for others.”
Now that’s a devastating command. It is a mortal threat to our own self-exaltation, self-preservation, self-gratification, self-centeredness to take all that deep commitment that we have to our own well-being and make it the measure of our commitment to the well-being of others. That’s simply gloriously astonishing, something nobody can do apart from a miracle of God. I think it’s the same thing Jesus was calling for when he said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Being the servant of all is virtually the same as loving others as you love yourself and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
So, I’m saying all of this as a preface to the ethical effort to sort out the details of what love looks like, what liberation from self-centeredness looks like. Because if we don’t come to terms with our own sinful selfishness, we will almost certainly twist the teachings of Jesus and Paul to make them fit into our bondage to self-gratification.
Tough Love in Thessalonica
So, now to Kate’s specific question regarding 2 Thessalonians 3:10. The situation at Thessalonica is that some people were using the nearness of Christ’s coming to justify their unwillingness to go to work and in an ordinary way earn their own living. Instead, they were acting like busybodies and going from house to house and were expecting others to provide the food and the needs that they should be providing for themselves by their own gainful employment. So, Paul says to the church in 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12,
Even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now, such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
So, these are professing Christians. He’s exhorting them “in the Lord Jesus.” And it’s not that they can’t work, like they have a disability, but that they won’t work. They don’t want to. You can see that in the word “not willing to work.” So, Paul is saying that one strategy, one brotherly loving strategy, to pressure these people back to doing what they ought to do — namely, earn their own living — is making it harder on them to depend on the work of others. You might call this a form of tough love.
Inclined to Give
But it would be very careless, I think, to take 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and apply it to every beggar or panhandler or homeless person on the street. We simply do not know why they are there, not without getting involved with them and talking to them. So, I think it would fly right in the face of the intention of the teachings of Jesus to use 2 Thessalonians 3:10 to make us resistant to beggars, assuming that they are lazy — unwilling to work for their own living — when we don’t know. That might be the case, but it might not be. We just don’t know.
“When Jesus says, ‘Give to everyone who begs from you,’ I think he means that that is our default inclination.”
When Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you,” I think he means that that is our default inclination when we are set free from our bondage to self. That’s our default inclination. That is our declaration of freedom from bondage to self and this world. That’s our declaration of desire to be gracious, even to the undeserving. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who abuse you,” and so on.
To be sure, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 cautions us that there are situations in which giving to the one who asks would do more harm than good. And I think Jesus already implied that when he said earlier in that paragraph, “Do good to those who hate you.” That means we need to think seriously about what is good for people. And when he said, “As you wish that others would do to you,” you would want people to do what’s really good for you, what helps.
What Might Help Most?
So I encourage all of us to do a little bit of research, a little bit of homework of what would be really most helpful to people on the street, all things considered. It’s not an easy question. And since we’re so prone towards selfishness, I think we should err on the side of being taken advantage of rather than erring on the side of shrewdly protecting our wallet and our ego.
At the last judgment — I’ve thought about this many times — I think Jesus will be much more prone to commend lavish generosity to the undeserving than he will be to commend how shrewd we were in keeping for ourselves our few dollars rather than giving them away. I just can’t imagine Jesus saying, “Wow, you were especially good at being shrewd at not being taken advantage of.” I don’t hear anything like that in Jesus’s teachings.
So, let’s know our own hearts, let’s confess the sin of selfishness, let’s pray for the compassion of Jesus and the far-seeing wisdom of Jesus, and let’s do our homework, a little bit of research to find out how our lives as a whole can bring blessing into people’s lives, especially eternal blessing.