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 guide our response to those in need:
1. Give with discernment
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. And often those least deserving will attempt to use guilt the most.
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.”