How to Handle Panhandlers
Chaston from Savannah, GA asks: “Pastor John, should we as Christians give to people begging on the street?”
Well that question is not foreign to me. I have wrestled with it for 33 years because that is how long I have lived in this neighborhood. When I lived out in New Brighton, I almost never faced that. For the last 33 years, I have faced it almost every day. To give the listener a taste of where I live, Today I was walking over to the church and a man was at the corner of the exit ramp for 11th Avenue and the street where I live. He was standing there with his little cardboard sign. So, I deal with those type of people most often walking by them, rather than driving by them.
Here is my answer as of right now, and it is what I think is biblical. Should you give to those who ask, whether they are knocking at your door or asking on the street? My answer is usually, yes. Usually, the default should be yes.
“My reflex is anger. My reflex is get a life, and I think that is a sinful reflex.”
Here is my reason. Selfishness is so dominant in my heart. I am reflexively hard toward this person. He makes me mad. I want to say, “Get a job.” But I have not even entered into his story. I am not interested in his condition. My reflex is anger. My reflex is get a life, and I think that is a sinful reflex. I do not think that is godly for me to respond that way.
I think that is the old nature creeping up in me. I think that is the reason Jesus said the radical things he did in Matthew. In Matthew 5:38–39 he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 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.”
You can imagine how hard that is. I hate to be slapped on the cheek. And Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” because he knows that would be a miracle. That would be a miracle in me if I turned the other cheek and had some sense of compassion for this person. And then he adds in Matthew 5:40, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” So, we know we are being ripped off.
A lot of people say, “Yeah, but he is ripping me off.” Well, of course you are being ripped off. You know it. In this text, you know it. Look at Matthew 5:41–42, “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
“Our default should be to give. Risk being ripped off rather than shrewd enough to say, ‘I didn’t get ripped off.’”
I have got to have some really good reasons to go against that text. So, my first answer is: generosity. Be ripped off. Risk being ripped off rather than being shrewd enough to say, “Oh, I didn’t get ripped off.” I have never slept well reminding myself how shrewd I was for not being ripped off. I have often slept well thinking, ok, I will probably get taken advantage of, but my heart was right today.
Now having said that I know a lot of veteran urban people are getting on my case right now. Having said that, I want to say I don’t think that is an absolute. I don’t think giving to the one who asks is the only way Jesus means for us to love people. Here are a few other principles.
Loving without Giving Money
Love does no harm. Romans 13:10 says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” — It doesn't harm a neighbor — “therefore, love fulfills the law.” You have to ask, “Am I harming him?” Love aims to do good. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43–44). That means pray for their good. It doesn’t mean pray for their harm. You want this person’s good. So, you don’t want to just feed their bad habits.
“You have to ask, ‘Am I harming him?’ You don’t want to just feed their bad habits.”
That is the argument usually used for why you shouldn’t give to them. Love has real compassion. The parable of the prodigal and of the good Samaritan closes with this. Who proved to be neighbor to this man? The one who showed compassion. And Jesus said, “Go do that. Go be compassionate.” There are ways to measure your love other than giving. Matthew 7:12 says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” Would you want others to just feed your bad habits?
So, here is what I would say. If someone is there and I don’t have time to do anything else, I think I should just give. If I have time to do more, I want to have a conversation. I want to say, “You know, I have found in this neighborhood that just giving money really doesn’t help people. I want to help you. What do you really need?”
“Oh, I need a bus trip to get over to St. Paul to see my mom.”
I say, “Well, look, I’ll take you.”
“No, I don’t want you to take me.”
That is a huge commitment to say, “I will take you. Get in the car.” I have gotten in the car at 10 o'clock at night and driven people over to North Minneapolis, and I know that they tell me to let them out and it’s nowhere.
I know I have been taken advantage of because they were trying the whole drive to get what they wanted. But when I get home, I sleep well. Instead of saying, “You idiot, it is 10 o'clock at night. Why are you knocking on my door? Get out of here. Come back in the morning.” If I do that, I go back up and think, what was that? That was pure flesh to respond like that.
I suppose the short answer is our default should be to give. Then do more if you can. In some cases say, “No money, but I will take you and get you the food you need. I will get you the diapers you need. I will get you where you need to go, but I don’t think it is wise for me to give you money.”