We see them on the street corners. In every major city you see them at the exits and entrances to the freeways. Or, more properly, we try not to see them. These are the panhandlers and the homeless. (I make that distinction, because some homeless do not beg, and some beggars are not homeless.) Two thoughts come to my mind.
Some people are hesitant to give to people who ask for a handout on the street. The question comes into their head, “What if this person will spend what I give him on drugs or alcohol?” If it is a gift, what does that matter? When we give presents to our children, do we put strings on the giving? “I will give you what you want for your birthday, but only if you promise to take out the trash every day and hand wash the dishes after each meal.” No, a gift is a gift. What is the motivation of the gift? Do you give out of obligation? Do you give so that you can say to God or to others that you gave? Then, maybe, you can put limitations on the use of the gift, because it is solely for your own benefit. Or do you give because God’s word has always demanded that we help the helpless? “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (Jas 1:27) If there are conditions added it is no longer a gift.
If you still want to give to the panhandler on the street corner, but have to comfort your own mind that it won’t be spent on something of which you would not approve, there is a modern answer. Give the gift of a meal. These days you can purchase gift cards in almost any denomination and for almost any location. If you regularly pass one corner where people are begging for money, go to a nearby restaurant and buy a handful of gift cards. At some places if you buy a certain amount they will throw in an additional $5 card for free. Then hand these out. If the person is not really looking for a meal, he may refuse the card. You have done your part; you tried to give. If the person is sincere in their need, they will gladly take the card, and bless you for it. (And if somebody takes the card, sells it to someone else, and uses the money on drugs, what is that to you? Have you never regifted an item?)
The second thought that comes to my mind relates to our common reaction when we see someone shabbily dressed, standing on a street corner, perhaps holding a hand-lettered sign. The typical response, even if they don’t have a sign, is to look away. Don’t even see if they are just waiting to cross the street. Don’t make eye contact. A child may cover his head with a sheet and leave his hands and legs visible, then claim “you can’t see me.” That is our childish reaction to many homeless and beggars. If we turn away, then they must not be there. If I can’t see him, then I have no obligation to try to relieve his pain or hunger.
Before you give in to that reaction, stop and think. We are called to follow a homeless man. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” (Lk 9:58) If that homeless man you just turned your back to was Jesus, what might you think when you found out?
Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 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. (Matt 25:44-45)