I don’t give money to beggars holding cardboard signs on the medians of our roadways. I don’t drop coins in the paper cups of disabled veterans outside the ballpark. I don’t give cash to transients looking for a tank of gas coming to my office at church.
It is difficult to say this out loud. I can’t escape Jesus’ words: “Give to everyone who begs from you”(Matt. 5:42, Luke 6:30). His call to compassion for the beggar is unequivocal. And my response is full of qualifications.
I want to follow his teachings. I want to follow his example. But as with his insistence that “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Matt. 5:30 and 18:8), I don’t take his begging admonition literally.
Handing a few dollars to the one holding the cardboard sign by the side of the road or dropping a few coins in a cup is designed to make us, the donors, feel good – benevolent, superior. Those invested in begging count on that. Such charity does little to move a suffering individual to wholeness.
When a transient comes to the church looking for money for food, I personally take them out to lunch or to the grocery store and pay the bill. When they come looking for money for a tank of gas, I drive with them to the gas station and pay for a full tank.
I don’t lecture or proselytize in such encounters. I try to listen to their stories and affirm their humanity. If they are local, I refer them to organizations that can assist them to work toward self-sufficiency, if that is their goal. If they are just passing through, I bless their journey.
Dropping a dollar in a cup doesn’t involve a conversation or an encounter with a human being. It’s designed to be convenient and detached for the donor.
Is that what Jesus had in mind?
He sets his admonition about begging in the verses about “turning the other cheek,” “going the second mile,” “lending to any in need of borrowing” and “praying for our enemies.” Vulnerability, openness and connection between human beings were his call.
My bias is to serve the Community Services Agency, the local food bank/direct assistance nonprofit agency and “safety net” for our community’s poor and frail elderly.
I have been on CSA’s board of directors for years and have worked with similar agencies throughout my 36 years in ordained ministry.
Our local Alpha Omega Homeless Services program assists the transition to decent housing and economic self-sufficiency for an average of 350 people each year.
When we distribute food and/or emergency PG&E or rent monies to those facing hunger and potential homelessness, we do so with trained social workers developing a plan toward self-sufficiency for our clients. We work with them in an ongoing relationship. Dignity in such a process is one of our highest priorities as an agency.
What dignity is there for the person begging on the side of the road when we drop in a few coins and just pass by?
Jesus didn’t intend for alms-giving to be an exercise in convenient piety for the donor, but a spiritual practice in which we participate in God’s promise that someday all will have enough, all will be treated with dignity and all will have a safe place to call home (Luke 4:18-19).
I won’t give money to beggars. I will contribute to the team/community effort it takes to restore a life.
The Rev. Mark S. Bollwinkel is senior pastor of Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For more information, visit www.laumc.org.