Give To Those Who Beg From You
Two friends of mine have been having an interesting discussion about it recently on Twitter. Ian Paul, in an article that was mainly about gender transition, made the case for “no”, on the basis that it was not actually the kind thing to do; his reasons are worth reading and considering carefully. Natalie Williams, who works for Jubilee Plus and whose book on serving the poor I quoted a few weeks back, responded that this lets us off the hook too easily:
Most of us really don’t need help to *not* give. Most of us need help to let mercy triumph over judgement. Let’s lean hard into mercy. That might mean giving or not, but let’s ensure our first Q is ‘how can I best show mercy?’, not ‘what will they do with the money?’ Also, this: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back” (Luke 6:30).
I think Nat’s first point is absolutely right, and one of the most important considerations in the whole discussion: our hearts are hardwired not to be generous, so that is the way we should be encouraged to lean. Ian’s initial reply focused on the second, exegetical and hermeneutical, point:
The difficult with this approach to Jesus’ commands is that it removes his command from its context, and places it into our, different, context. To see the problem with this, imagine applying it to a context where you have something that could be used as a weapon (such as a knife) and someone wants to harm others with it. Should you give what is asked of you? This clearly does not reflect the meaning of Jesus’ command ... Instead, he is asking us to live by the principle of radical generosity to all, without discrimination as to who is the subject of our generosity—but not without thinking about the consequences of our action.
Which I also think is true. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with less fanciful thought-experiments in which giving to someone who asks you for something would not be helpful, or loving, to them (most obviously in the case of addicts); our generosity would do more good if it was expressed in a different way. I asked the guy who runs the homeless project at my church about it, and he replied by quoting a Labour MP who had been involved with rough sleeping: we should primarily give to the things which get people off the streets, rather than the things which keep people on the streets. So I think Ian has a point here.
But Nat has an important point too—which, incidentally, the guy who runs our homeless project also made straight away—which she summarised beautifully with her next comment:
As long as we’re not actually dressing up cynicism and calling it wisdom, which I know I can have a tendency to do.
Boom. The problem is, you see, that many of us (and that certainly includes me) are looking for an excuse not to give to the homeless person, whether for financial or social reasons. So when we hear that we should give somewhere else instead, we breathe a sigh of relief, and walk past the homeless person without noticing them, confident that our standing order—which, let’s be honest, avoids what might be an awkward interaction with a real person—has our obedience to Jesus covered. And that is assuming that we actually give to a homeless project, whether through a local church or not, in the first place.
So I think Ian is basically right about the application of the Sermon on the Mount in contemporary society: it requires contextualisation, and wisdom, which may or may not involve taking Jesus’ command literally, depending on the context. But I think Nat is basically right about the power of sin in the human heart, and the ease with which we can blunt the sharp edge of Jesus’ call to radical discipleship on this one. So: should we focus our giving on charities that deal with homelessness rather than individuals, or should we treat every bearer of God’s image who has nowhere to sleep with generosity, dignity and love? Yes.