Brother, Can You Spare a Dime

It’s the kind of story that seems to prove what most of us suspect.  A local news station interviews a panhandler. Not only is she breaking the law, she doesn’t really consider herself “homeless.”  Well-capable of working, she just wants to see the country, hoping to “pick blueberries in Maine” in the spring.  “I just needed a break.”  Instead of minimum wage, she draws in $50 dollars during the 45 minutes the news cameras are watching.

I’ll admit, hearing stories like this tends to make me suspicious, even cynical.  Want to see the country?!?  Don’t we all?  Welcome to the real world!  Need a break?  One mother responds, “Puh-leeze, give me a break. She’s 24 years old; she hasn’t lived long enough to need a break. Try raising kids, working two jobs and going to school all at the same time. Then talk to me about giving you a break.”

They anger us.  That much money with little work and no taxes?  It just reaffirms what we have suspected – the woeful-looking people with their hand out are all liars, swindlers, or cons.  Probably going to use it for alcohol or drugs or worse, a cell-phone.

The challenge for a follower of Christ is “How do we respond with balanced, Christ-like thinking to these kind of stories?” I don’t claim to know all the answers, but here are a few thoughts that might be helpful:

1. Be discerning

We should practice discernment in how and to whom we give.  Compassion does not require switching your critical thinking skills to the off position. Discernment will also help you avoid the extremes of giving to all unthinkingly or ignoring all uncaringly.

2. Don’t be motivated by guilt

If the only reason we put money into someone’s hand is because we feel the external pressure of their opinion, it is guilt – and a false guilt at that! Guilt is always bad motivation for grace.

3. Don’t become cynical and uncaring

This may be the worst thing about this type of story: the antipathy it creates toward ALL those in need.  It becomes an excuse to not help anyone.  If I am not careful, it can destroy the good-will I have toward those with legitimate needs.

4. Serve/give/minister through legitimate outlets

There are MANY opportunities to give/serve/minister through reputable charitable organizations.  Our communities are filled with those who have legitimate needs.  I can give time and money through them and feel absolutely no guilt when a 30 year-old Vietnam vet looks at me through my windshield.

5. Be bold

We must break out of our comfort zone to give to those who are different from us. Just because their clothes are tattered, they smell, and they are living on the street doesn’t make them suspect.  We tend to help those who are like us or those we know.  That is good.  We should also help strangers who are different from us. We might be helping “angels unawares.”

I don’t believe we are expected to “enable” those who manipulate the system.  Neither, as believers in Christ, can we ignore the reality of poverty and need.  Perhaps this is one of those instances in which we are expected to be “wise as serpents, harmless as doves.”

How do you react to panhandling? Any creative ways to respond to that outstretched hand?

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2 thoughts on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime

  1. Living in a downtown urban loft, I am regularly confronted by these folks. I feel that I can spot a pro but, like anything, my discernment is not 20/20. One morning I rejected one guy and and gave $20 to a gal on the street – something in her eyes moved me (maybe it was compassion?) to give something to her.

    All that said, I think that you are right about giving to the missions and the shelters – there are many who really help the poor. Sadly, I think that most suburban dwellers, and the churches they attend, generally do little to help the poor. It reminds me of the verses in James (second chapter?) where he speaks of giving lip service to the poor. Even so, I wish that folks did more and complained less about the government helping the poor.

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