Are we literally supposed to give to every beggar who begs of us?

In a thread at The Thinking Housewife yesterday, a reader had spoken of an unpleasant experience she had had with aggressive beggars. I said in a comment:

“One should not give money to beggars, period.”

A commenter named Mike then disputed my view, appealing to the authority of Jesus in Luke 6:

“Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Mike then added: “In order to follow Christ, one must give to everyone who asks, regardless of the circumstances or worthiness of the recipient.”

In the latest entry in this discussion, Dean Ericson and I reject Mike’s literalist interpretation of Jesus’ words.

- end of initial entry -

Jonah O. writes:

I am not sure as I would go so far as to say I take issue with your contextualization of Jesus’ statement regarding begging, but I would caution that there is a point where the strangeness and sheer counter-intuitive other-worldliness of Jesus’ views, which was seemingly noticed by all at the time, is undercut by making too many attempts to line him up with the practical life-choices of a conservative, urban, resentful-of-the-squalor-of-the-left American.

While I do agree that, for example, the verses regarding the welcoming of strangers is in no way a comment on national borders policy, I do think we should recall that whoever we are, and however much try to align ourselves with the Christian way of life, the Christ remains a startling and singular figure, and there may well be directives that do not always align with what we’d ordinarily consider a convenient, prudent life-choice.

This is meant to serve not as a counter-argument, really, but more as a caution, a weight which must always remain on the same side of scale, the side of strangeness.

LA replies:

Excellent point.

Josh F. writes:

I don’t see any ambiguity in Christ’s command, once we fully appreciate what it means to truly “beg” or “ask.” Both actions require a genuine emotional plea. It is this lack of genuine emotional plea which shows that most “beggars” aren’t really beggars at all, but dirtbags praying on our compassion. The instances in which I have given to a beggar are almost always to those that say nothing and simply “wear” a genuine emotional plea. If God sent angels as beggars in order to test us then WITHOUT a genuine emotional plea from this angel in disguise, what would be the test? To see if we are sadomasochistic?

Dean Ericson writes:

It’s a large topic and VFR has dealt with it from time to time: Was Jesus the ultimate liberal, and so all our troubles follow from that? Or is it just a modern misreading of what Jesus taught? On the one hand we have Jesus’ clear words. On the other if we follow them literally we often run into problems. It makes my poor brain boil trying to think it through. No doubt Christians have spent considerable time discussing this in millennia past.

LA replies:

I have actually thought of beginning a regular feature at VFR in which, every few days, I give my reading of various Gospel passages, starting with the very “toughest” (i.e., the most liberal/suicidal) passages, from the Sermon on the Mount.

In fact I think I did draft the beginning of this (or at least I did the thinking work) a couple of months ago, but didn’t stay with it at the time.

LA to Dean Ericson:

Subject: Jesus contra Auster

Auster: “One should not give money to beggars, period.”

Jesus: “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Pretty funny, huh?

Dean Ericson replies:

A regular riot … remind me not to stand too close to you in a lightning storm ;-)

It would be a fine thing if Jesus had his own radio talk show and we could call in, or email, questions like this and get a definitive answer.

Beth M. writes:

Looking forward to the Sermon on the Mount series!

Have you read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “Discipleship”? (Previously published in English as “The Cost of Discipleship” and originally published in German as “Nachfolge.”) A big chunk of it is about the Sermon on the Mount, and of course, “cheap grace.”

Kristor writes:

Jesus didn’t say “Give money to everyone who begs from you.” He left open the option that we could give something else to beggars. We could pray for them, for example.

But it is more than likely that in saying this, Jesus was adjuring men of position and power to be merciful to their supplicants.

Paul K. writes:

The statements of Jesus on charity, chastity, and obedience are understood as “counsels of perfection,” that is, he is setting forth the standards for a saint, not for someone that must live a normal life. Were they to be strictly followed, the Church would have lasted no longer than did the strictly celibate Shakers. The interpretation of the Church is that these counsels apply only to those who seek to lead a consecrated life, and are not necessary conditions without which heaven cannot be attained. They are acts of supererogation that exceed the behavior covered by the Ten Commandments.

There is a good Wikipedia article on this subject, from which I quote:

A young man in the Gospel asked what he should do to obtain eternal life, and Jesus told him to “keep the commandments,” but when the young man pressed further, Christ told him: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor.” (It is from this passage that the term “counsel of perfection” comes.) Again in the Gospels, Jesus speaks of “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven,” and added, “He that can receive it, let him receive it.”

St. Paul presses home the duty incumbent on all Christians of keeping free from all sins of the flesh, and of fulfilling the obligations of the married state, if they have taken those obligations upon themselves, but also gives his “counsel” in favour of the unmarried state and of perfect chastity, on the ground that it is thus more possible to serve God with an undivided allegiance.

Indeed, the danger in the Early Church, even in Apostolic times, was not that the “counsels” would be neglected or denied, but that they should be exalted into commands of universal obligation, “forbidding to marry” (1 Timothy 4:3), and imposing poverty as a duty on all.

Richard S. writes:

“One should not give money to beggars, period.”

I am in total visceral agreement with this statement. And I would like to add: one should only give money to the person one loves. I am not talking about the poppycock love of humanity. I am talking about an actual living breathing flesh and blood individual that you CARE ABOUT, and want to help, or protect, shield from this brutal world. And even then you are under no OBLIGATION to give. Even a parent is under no obligation to give to his child. Although that is the best giving. Because the truest. The giving that is helpless not to give. That is when it is best.

Dean Ericson writes:

Kristor writes:

Jesus didn’t say “Give money to everyone who begs from you.”

That’s true … so could I give them a good tongue lashing?

Kristor continues:

He left open the option that we could give something else to beggars. We could pray for them, for example.

Pray they go away …

Kristor continues:

But it is more than likely that in saying this, Jesus was adjuring men of position and power to be merciful to their supplicants.

That may well be, and you’ll please pardon my jesting. It’s just that it discomfits me to parse our Savior’s words as a lawyer might. He said some clear things, and while we might quibble with details, the whole of it seems consistent and clear.

And with that, my friends, I bid you adieu; I’m out the door now to give away all my worldly possessions to the first taker. (My jacket size is 42 if anyone wants a nice tux).

Mercedes D. writes:

Thank you, Laura and Lawrence, for posting the Charity and Reason thread on both of your sites.

This is a great discussion and I appreciate all of the comments on both sides.

Perhaps I am reading my King James Version of the Bible too literally—although I don’t consider myself either a fundamentalist or liberal Christian—but I tend to agree with Mike’s comments.

Whenever someone asks me specifically for money, I give them money, because of Jesus’ command to “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” (Matthew 5:42) I also remember that Jesus said “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” and “Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” (Matthew 25:40 and 25:45)

I am well aware that sometimes people will use the money to buy alcohol or drugs, but agree with Mike that it is not our place to decide who is worthy of mercy. I have been both an alcoholic and a drug addict in my younger years, but by the grace and mercy of God I became free of both addictions and did not end up on the street. Whenever I see someone who looks like they might be in the grip of either or both of these debilitating sins, I can’t help but think “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

There are those who seem to beg as a way of life, but there have been many occasions where someone is just standing off to the side with a sign that says “Please help” or something like that. I have bought food for such people and could tell that they truly appreciated it, and then never saw them begging again. Even the serial beggars that I have become acquainted with—because I have asked their names—eventually leave off. I remember one man named Joseph that I would encounter a couple of times a week. He said he lived under an overpass, and he begged from a couple of locations near my house for a few months. It seemed to mean a lot to him that someone would care to know his name and to ask him how he was doing. More recently, I became acquainted with a woman named Christine who frequented the same two places that Joseph did. When I first met her, I thought she was a man, because her face was so weather beaten. She said she was homeless, and I know that she spent some nights in a local park because I saw her there. Christine definitely had a drinking problem, because occasionally I would see her sleeping on the bench in front of my local grocery store with empty beer cans scattered around her. But she was always grateful for the food that I gave her, and like Joseph, it seemed to mean a lot to her that someone would care to know her name. Eventually, the local grocery store and liquor store stopped selling alcohol to her, and her appearance improved a bit. The last time I saw her, she looked much better, and I haven’t seen her begging for quite a while.

Perhaps I am being taken advantage of by some of the people to whom I give, but I would rather err in that direction than miss the opportunity to help someone who truly needed my help. I feel fortunate to have a steady job, a house to sleep in at night, and plenty of food to eat. I would just feel too selfish if I did not share some of my worldly blessings with those who are clearly less fortunate. And if some to whom I give think that they have played me for a sucker, so be it. I will still count my blessings and not feel poorer for it.

Sorry for the ultra long message, but thanks for listening!

November 18

Paul G. writes:

As someone who works in a Christian ministry devoted to serving the poor, I am in qualified agreement with your statement about giving to people on the street who ask for money. That does not, however, mean that we should not give to them. I believe that Jesus meant what He said in the Sermon on the Mount, and I don’t think the “counsels on perfection” really get at what He was saying. What did St. Peter say to the beggar in Acts: “Silver and gold I have none of, but what I have I give you.” He was sharing his time with the man, and that was worth more than money.

My office is located in the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago. Anyone who knows the area also knows that it’s been a long time haven for social service agencies and places that cater to the poor and mentally ill. As a result, the neighborhood has more than its fair share of poor and mentally ill panhandlers and beggars. I’m often asked for spare change or a dollar. I never give that out. I always do my best to stop and talk with person asking me for money—not to evangelize him (though sometimes that happens), but just to get to know him for a couple minutes. Every once in a while I’ll encounter a true ingrate who only wants money and doesn’t want to talk with me if I won’t give him any. The VAST majority of the time, however, the people I talk with are tremendously grateful that I took the 2 or 3 minutes to just chat with them, to acknowledge their humanity, and to shake their hand or pat them on the back. I daresay it means more to them than any money I’d give them.

I’m usually a big fan of Kristor’s comments. But his points about giving beggars a tongue-lashing or praying that they go away are in poor taste and beneath a man of his obvious Christian commitment and dignity. I firmly believe that it is incumbent upon all Christians to give their time and attention to those in need. One of the biggest problems with the liberal nanny state is that it gives people money and feeds their bodies but it doesn’t feed their souls. It feeds them spiritually, but not materially.

The poor, especially the homeless, are used to being ignored, shunned, and marginalized. (A friend of mine, as part of his pastoral training, was intentionally homeless in Chicago for a month. The thing that struck him the most was the extent to which people would go out of their ways not to look at him or acknowledge his presence—and my friend is white and not terribly disheveled [i.e. doesn’t look like a typical homeless man].) Regardless of how they got into their situations—whether they’re the few genuinely unfortunates who hit the streets through no fault of their own, or whether they’re among the many who bear at least some measure of responsibility for their situation—as Christians we are called to love them and care for them. That doesn’t include coddling them if they refuse to work to support themselves. Neither does it mean enabling them in their addictions. It does mean supporting them as fellow human beings—acknowledging and affirming the image of God within them by, at a minimum, giving them our time and attention for a couple minutes and getting to know them. Thus do we fulfill Christ’s command. Thus do we change lives. Thus are we changed.

Robert B. writes:

You and your readers who think that the statement quoted may be binding on all Christians need look no further than Augustine’s “City Of God.” Wherein you will find where the old line “Charity begins at home” comes from—Augustine. Augustine labored over those very words himself. In the end he came to the conclusion that charity for all was divine and not of this world. Augustine recognized man’s inner turmoils and decided that for us, the whole idea of giving away money, shelter and food to total strangers was not practical. Rather charity, of necessity (that being getting people to give in the first place) must be local. By local Augustine was referring to one’s local church and its congregation. That for one to feel comfortable, one must actually know the recipient of one’s largess. In the knowing, came the knowing of the need and its righteousness. Along these same lines, Augustine felt that the bulk of monies donated to the Church should remain within that community so as to do good deeds for the poor in that community.

Any other interpretation of that line of Jesus’ is pure propaganda, such as making the claim that the Church was the original communist organization and should be seen as such. I have heard this and the Good Samaritan story used over and over again as a justification for the overrunning of America by mostly Mexicans but all Third Worlders in general—that Jesus commands us to allow this and we must give to these people. It is nothing more than Open Borderism cloaked in the garb of the Bible.

While it has been thirty years since I was assigned “The City Of God” (History of Political Thought In Western Civilization) I can still remember that aspect of it—at the time I thought of all of America’s foreign aid. I have decided to read it again this winter. It will help me rebut the Liberation Theologists in my midst. By the way, that class was a one year long sequential course (Poly-Sci dept.) that began with the Old Testament and ended with Karl Marx. That class made me, forever, a foe of Communism and its light weight cousin socialism. Mankind spent 3,500 years in death and struggle to arrive at the Founders (God Bless them all) and the Declaration Of Independence. The last 200 years has been a struggle to destroy what they created, since it stood out alone in all of the world for its truth and charity toward all. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that the Founders were the greatest men to live in the last two thousand years. They could have been kings and barons, instead, they became humble citizens of a Republic that they and they alone could have created.

God save the Republic

November 19

Kristor writes:

Paul G. disagrees with me that it is OK to give beggars tongue lashings, or pray that they go away. But what I said was quite different. I said:

Jesus didn’t say “Give money to everyone who begs from you.” He left open the option that we could give something else to beggars. We could pray for them, for example.

But it is more than likely that in saying this, Jesus was adjuring men of position and power to be merciful to their supplicants.

That said, I do think some beggars may deserve a tongue lashing, and even derive benefit therefrom. But I am in no position to deliver one. As I said in a message to Laura Wood (part of which she posted in her parallel, and quite worthy, thread on begging):

There are beggars and there are beggars. Some could use a good tongue lashing, I bet; the outright scam artists, most of whom I can see through instantly. But many are as you say somehow wounded. Prayer is perhaps the most accurate way we may help them.

Giving someone a good tongue lashing is in any case far more costly, all things considered, than shelling out a fiver. It wounds the lasher, unless he be a fit judge. Which I am not.

Best thing about prayer is it salves both intercessee and intercessor.

Clark Coleman writes:

Paul G. wrote:

“I’m usually a big fan of Kristor’s comments. But his points about giving beggars a tongue-lashing or praying that they go away are in poor taste and beneath a man of his obvious Christian commitment and dignity.”

It was Dean Ericson who made these remarks, not Kristor.

Dean Ericson replies:

Those remarks of mine were meant to be facetious, not serious. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 17, 2010 01:48 PM | Send

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