Saturday, July 18, 2009

Christianity and Giving Money to Beggars

In modern society, beggars are generally not regarded with much respect. Among the religious and non-religious alike, we tend to frown upon begging. Get a job, we might say. Beggars might even present a threat to us, because what if begging turns to mugging?

I've talked before to Christians about giving money/food to beggars. In my experience, most Christians are supportive of giving food to beggars, but not money. What if they use it for drugs/sex/alcohol, etc? I've also had Christians say that even food should be given discriminately, because many beggars are just lazy and would rather sit and beg than go get a job. I've heard this said in specific reference to "familiar" beggars at sporting events, the local intersection, etc.

I've made the argument that, as Christians, we are not instructed to discriminate in that way. The Bible doesn't say "Give to the poor as long as you think they'll use your charity wisely." It just says give.

I wanted to reassert this point with one of the most widely attested sayings attributed to Jesus in the entire canon of Christian literature. I'll provide the saying in all its various forms among the texts that attest it.

Shepherd of Hermas (circa 100 C.E.) - Do good, and of all your toil which God gives you, give in simplicity to all who need, not doubting to whom you shall give and to whom not: give to all, for to all God wishes gifts to be made of his own bounties.

Luke (circa 90 C.E.) - Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

Matthew (circa 85 C.E.) - Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Gospel of Thomas (circa 60 C.E.) - Jesus said, "If you have money, do not lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you will not get it back.

Didache/Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (circa 50 C.E.) - If someone takes from you your goods, do not reclaim them, for you are not able to do so; give to every person who asks anything of you and do not make any counter-demands.

The dates of those texts, of course, are up for debate, but one thing most scholars agree on is that they are all independent of one another. Luke and Matthew's version came from the Q Gospel - an otherwise non-extant source that is imbedded in those two texts; the Q Gospel, Gospel of Thomas, and Didache all drew the saying from the Common Sayings Tradition, which is the earliest oral tradition of Jesus' teachings, going back to the very earliest days of Christianity. The Shepherd of Hermas also probably comes from oral tradition, though it may have used Matthew and/or Luke.

It is for this reason that most Jesus scholars affirm very strongly that this teaching - to give indiscriminately and without expecting anything in return, most definitely goes back to Jesus himself.

Considering that, should we - as Christians - not take it very seriously, and stop giving discriminately to only those poor who we think deserve it and/or will use it wisely?


krispykremekiller said...

I agree. I have seen the light in this respect. Rather than judge these people by what they might do with the money, you just have to let go. A gift, is a gift, right? Once I give it, I lose control of it. While I feel I can change their lives better were I to direct their gift to something more positive, my impact stops once I leave. I can't care for them, I can't look after them. I can't be assured they won't buy booze or drugs. I can give them the choice, and just put a little cash in their hands. Money=choice=freedom. They choose.

Scott said...

Thanks for posting, KK. Or should I say "FJ"? If you have no idea what I'm talking about, then I'm wrong.

It took me longer to "see the light." And honestly, I didn't see it in my personal life until I "saw it" in scripture. Only then did it suddenly make sense to me.

And considering my theological views, that's pretty remarkable when you think about it!

Anonymous said...

All points well taken, BUT...It is a very big assumption that you are dealing in most cases with the truely poor. What didn't happen in Jesus' time that does happen today is organizations of beggars who are transported to various parts of big cities to beg each day, each "beggar" with his/her own territory. As a resident of a very large city, we see these folks constantly and as regular as clock work on a particular corner at a particular time of day. They are typically removed a long distance from where they probably live if they are very poor or where they stay if they are homeless. Reasonable people have to stop and ask where they came from and who tranported them here?

I saw one the other day, though, that I'm determined to give to: His sign said, "Visions of a Cheeseburger". That's it! No "God Bless"; no "Please Help". I'm determined to buy him a McDonalds and hand it to him when I go by his site...a very consistent site at a specific time of day.

Scott said...

Well, I am skeptical of the "professional beggar" argument. Professional beggars are almost like urban legends now. I'm not denying that some might exist, but they certainly don't represent more than maybe 1% of all homeless beggars.

I'll copy and paste a response I made on the Rush messageboard:

My healthy sense of skepticism always comes out when I hear these kinds of stories. Someone else on this thread talked about people making "500 a week" begging in Oregon, and several responders seemed to just accept that at face value. ORF, for instance, expressed moral indignation because 500 a week is more than he makes himself working at a job.

Again, I am extremely skeptical of these kinds of stories. I find it hard to believe that a beggar could clear that kind of money on a weekly basis. Every now and then in a lucky week? Maybe. But I flat out do not believe that a beggar, whose sole "income" comes from handouts, could make anywhere close to 500 a week or 50,000 per year. I would need to see some pretty overwhelming evidence to believe that.

Furthermore, even if it's true that there are some "professional" beggars out there who manage to bilk society for a salary's worth of money each year, they would be so few and far between as to render it ridiculous to use them as an excuse to withhold handouts to poor people. Should we refrain from giving clothes and household goods to Goodwill because there are financially-stable people, who happen to be cheap-asses, who shop there?

The fact is, these sorts of stories, and people's reactions to them, scream of massive confirmation bias. There are two problems: 1) we accept the stories at face value without actually investigating if they are true or not (that's the confirmation bias); and 2) we use the possibility of a few charlatans among thousands to excuse ourselves from helping poor people whose only option may be begging.