Should You Give to A Beggar?

I remember the first time I experienced a beggar on the street. It was in Toronto and he looked right at me and my friends, I was around 14 years old and he asked me for money. My first reaction was to give him whatever I had. He looked awful and smelled as bad. I think I remember giving him a buck or two and then walking away in awe that people actually live like that. Since then, I’ve seen, talked to and been around a large amount of those without homes. The amount of beggars that I saw in Europe was mind boggling; from four year old children that didn’t know any English words except “please” to an eighty year old women hovering at the entrance of Notre Dame shaking and crying for anything that anyone could spare. Seeing the amount of people like I did forces one to rethink everything. Yet at the same time it doesn’t take long until you are completely desensitized to those that beg for your money on the street. In fact if you’re like me you probably already have a list of reasons and justifications of why you don’t give to those that beg for money on the streets. The reasons are plentiful like

– they have more money than you do
– once someone saw someone beg for money and then jump in their BMW
– they don’t want to get a job
– they will just buy drugs or booze
– they will waste it
– it doesn’t help them and you are only making the problem worse
– they don’t need money, they need help of some other kind

I am sure you could add more to the list if you’ve spent any time thinking about it at all. I basically have had one of those views listed above as my dominant view to the homeless for the past 8 years or so. This usually caused me to respond to such begging by asking them if they would prefer a burger or some food instead, where I got a positive response half the time and would buy them something to eat or just to walk away from them and try to shake them from my memory. Other times they would only accept money which would just go to prove everything I thought. I say all this until probably the past year. This last year has been one of stretching for me when it comes to the homeless and those who are more economically challenged than myself. Part of it comes from these sets of posts where I thought a lot about the poor and what it means to be with them and among them. I think I’ve done a complete overhaul on my theology of the poor over the past year and more specifically my theology of the poor beggar on the side of the road.

My thinking of the beggar on the street was the most challenged by Dan Oudshoorn and his post on giving to all beggars. He said:

I would encourage Christians to give to all beggars, and I would encourage Christians who donate to charities to refuse the offer of tax receipts.

At first this sounded utterly ridiculous. It sounded irresponsible, being a bad steward, idealistic and unintelligent. Yes I thought all those negative words at one simple sentence. However now I think it reflects a kingdom mentality better than I thought. So hopefully this post can expand a bit on his post here to why I think this is the way of Christ.

Keeping all those reasons that I listed above in mind, there are typically for most people two things that happen when you see a beggar on a street. You either throw some coins their way or you walk past them. Some of us, sometimes but rarely, offer to buy them food, sit to talk to them, build relationships with them, or give them some clothes or a place to sleep that night. But typically the average person (Christian or not) usually does one of those two things. So really what we need to ask ourselves is if you’re not actually going to do what we are supposed to do by giving them clothes or a roof then what is the better option? To walk away or to give them what they are asking for. Because most of us are unwilling to actually work alongside of the poor in any sort of way then I think breaking it down to those two options is probably accurate for us. So the question remains is it better to walk away or to give them what they are asking for. Dan quoted this passage in Luke.

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same? If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return… Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
~ Lk 6.30, 32-35a, 36.

So really if they ask we should give. Bottom line, I don’t really see any way out. We constantly put our made up fruits of the spirit of responsibility, being a good steward, being wise in front of our duty to be those that give of ourselves. Our money saturated culture tells us that it is only “good” to give if there are tangible results. I think Christ tells us to give without any results. In fact maybe that’s the only way that the kingdom actually moves forward, giving without expecting or mandating a return of any sort. If we are all giving expecting something to happen or else we stop giving then I can’t see us getting very far. The more I understand Jesus the more I understand him to be nonsensical and irresponsible to what we have standardized today.

Now I hear the objections arise, all the same ones that were flying through my own head. But what if they just go buy drugs, aren’t we encouraging the problem? What if they are just lazy and don’t want a job? I think however with every excuse it comes down to us simply not judging ANYONE and giving to EVERYONE. As soon as we assume that someone is doing something (like buying drugs) for whatever reason we have put them in a box and we’ve made our giving conditional on who we think they are. If you are just going to walk away because you think they will be irresponsible in whatever way, this means that you have chosen to judge that person on the street and based on your judgment of someone you’ve never talked to refuse to give them what they are asking for.

With all this said, I don’t think the answer to those that beg on the streets to throw money at them all day long. I don’t think the answer is walking away either. The answer lies in doing what Christ asks us to do by taking care of them and making them part of our lives and relationships. However, if you, like me, aren’t going to do that at any specific moment and you’re going to do one of two things then I suggest you give them what they ask for.

12 thoughts on “Should You Give to A Beggar?”

  1. I used to give money, all the time, to beggars on the road. Once a beggar came to me with a story about trying to get enough money to take the bus home, so I gave it to him, just to see him go and buy a coke with the money, then beg from a bunch of other people.

    That was the last time I gave.

    Later I saw a friend of mine get the same story. He called a taxi, gave the driver $20 and told him “Keep the change… do NOT give it to him.” This way if the guy just said “let me off here”, he wouldn’t get the rest of the money. If he really did need a ride home, then he’d get it, and the Taxi drive would already still have his tip.

    There may be times when beggars ask because they really need. In America, that’s not often the case: anyone can get what they need if they’re willing to look for it. Hundreds of organizations for which donations and tax dollars have already been spent are set up to take care of them all, give them homes, etc. If they ask for help, I’ll usually point them to where they can go.

    Good idea. I’ve yet to use it though.

    What I do now is offer them work. I’ve never once gotten someone to agree to that. (What, is washing a car beneath you? You’ll get $30 — that’s more than I get paid an hour!) A friend of mine, a writer, has taken an innovative approach: he’ll give them a dollar or two if they tell him a story. I haven’t yet seen how this works, but I imagine stories are a plentiful commodity.

    Often time, the people in South Florida which would be just begging are selling newspapers on street corners. I’ll give money to these people aaaaalll day long. “Paper’s $.35? Here’s a $5, keep the change.” Unlike their beggar-only counterparts, these guys are willing to work, and I’m willing to reward them for it. I get nothing out of it, really — I don’t really read newspapers, except maybe the Classifieds once in a while — but they’re working, which means they’re willing to do what they have to.

    In the end, I believe that while you give with a good heart, you may be better serving your fellow man by taking them to where they can get help (or getting help to them) instead of just giving them cash, or even food. And of course, if they’re willing to work, then the onus is on me to take care of them.

    Thanks for the good, thoughtful post.

  2. Err… that “good idea” goes below the 2nd big paragraph (the Taxi thing), not the 3rd (the pointing them to a source of help). Bad editing on my part.

    It should read:

    Later I saw a friend of mine get the same story. He called a taxi, gave the driver $20 and told him “Keep the change… do NOT give it to him.” This way if the guy just said “let me off here”, he wouldn’t get the rest of the money. If he really did need a ride home, then he’d get it, and the Taxi drive would already still have his tip.

    Good idea. I’ve yet to use it though.

    There may be times when beggars ask because they really need…

    Sorry about the confusion. (Feel free to “fix” the above paragraph and delete this comment for clarity’s sake. Thanks.)

  3. I think the point is with giving to the poor is that we’re not told to give to the poor, to give to the beggar only when we can justify it as “wise” or “good stewardship” in our American minds.

  4. But what about the context in which it is said? When the Bible says “poor”, it’s talking about a society in which there’s no social safety net, no organizations or institutions developed specifically to help them. We (I’m talking US only, I don’t know about other countries) have set up systems specifically to deal with this, and while they are indeed sometimes inadequate (and trust me, I’m well aware of the system’s deficiencies), the fact of the matter is that is someone wants help, there’s help there for them. You can’t compare that culture to us, can’t take the words at face value.

    I’m of the belief that context is of such importance that without it, lessons can do more harm than good. It’s like knowing that aspirin is good for you when you have a fever, then giving that aspirin to your cat because he has a fever.

    Context: good for us, not good for them. Likewise in the Bible: context is key to truly understanding.

  5. I value context strongly as well. And I see what you’re saying. I don’t think the idea here is to create law but to instill in our hearts and purposes of the messages of Christ.

    If that does not lead you to give to beggars then that’s fine. But wrestling with it is important and I’m not sure inserting our American ideas of capitalism, individualism and stewardship of money is necessarily the correct hermeneutic either

  6. In response to Gnorb, yes it is totally different in the U.S. vs. the rest of the world. In my country, Peru, you do deal with beggars everyday. From the young ones juggling cans, balls or even balancing canes lit on fire, to the very young, 6-7 year olds begging for some money, to the elderly that can barely walk, to those who have some kind of special condition (no arms, different sized legs, etc.)

    Here there are really very few institutions that support or help this persons. With what I’ve seen some people capable to donate on the U.S., you could feed or provide clothes for hundreds or thousands of them here. For example, in this country, $2 can afford you two full meals a day in a low cost restaurant.

    Just some food for thought…!

  7. Great food for thought. This issue comes up a lot from our staff and volunteers here in Winnipeg’s inner city. I saw it 10 times as much when I lived in Vancouver (a more forgiving climate for a street culture).

    When people ask me if they should give to beggars, but first answer is always “Yes”. Giving to all who ask does not, however, always mean giving them what they are asking for. Sometimes it means money, food, bus tickets, etc. Always it means dignity and relationship. The first rule of thumb for is, stop, look them in the eye and engage them as fellow Eikons of the living God.

    As your post (and many of the comments demonstrate) have indicated, beyond this is can get complicated. When I lived in Vancouver, I got to know many of the panhandlers and beggars on Commercial Drive. Sometimes I would give, other times I would chat or bring a tray of Costco muffins. Some of them I knew were hardcore heroine addicts, so they knew I wouldn’t give them money. Some of them, who later cleaned up, appreciated that (though they didn’t always at the time).

    One day, as I arrived at the YWAM centre, I saw our parking lot shut down by police tape. It turned out that one of the local panhandlers had O.D.ed in our lot and died in the night. This didn’t convince me to never give money again, but it did make me pause.

    Therefore, I think we are called to give to all who ask- give of ourselves, our time, our biases, our money, etc. We need to be willing to allow these people to become a part of our lives- a disruptive part, if need be- and give them, above all, the love that is theirs from God and His Church. What that looks like will vary, but it isn’t optional.

    I really love a line from a song I heard last year. It is a prayer and says:

    “Give bread to those who are hungry,
    Give a hunger justice to those who have bread.”


  8. A bum asked me for money the other day and I said “NO! You’re only going to spend it on booze” (I knew this because he was standing outside of the liquor store I was buying booze from).
    Its then I realized “why should I be hard on this guy about buying booze, thats what I am spending my money on.” Its not like he is going to take the cash and invest in an RSP.

  9. Yo … I recommend Kelly Johnson’s book that just came out “The Fear of Beggars.” It opens up a whole new perspective on begging as a Christian practice … and enables discernment in some new and challenging ways .. I hope to review it my blog .. peace …

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