Justin, our driver, lights a cigarette, and the conversation turns to an NYC Transit poster that’s been popping up all over town. Featuring a black-and-white photo of a grizzly man, the headline reads, “Give the homeless the kind of change they can really use.” The fine print below this slogan implies that it’s best to ignore panhandlers: write checks later if you must give to charity.
When I first saw one on a subway platform in my neighborhood, I did a double-take, because of an extra headline someone had pasted above the original: “Give to the one who begs from you,” it read. The new slogan was credited to “Jesus (Matt. 5:42).”
In a sophisticated society full of public policy experts and MSW’s, the idea of simply giving seems disingenuous, at best. “You can’t solve people’s problems just by throwing money at them,” is a common retort, though it often comes from people who do just that to solve their own. True, the best solutions are comprehensive and systemic. Martin Luther King touched on this in one of his last speeches, when he admonished those who fling coins at beggars to change the edifices that produce beggars in the first place.
In the forty years that have passed since his death, coin flinging has been largely replaced by new paradigms, including job training and peer counseling and treatment for addiction. In New York City alone, the list of progressive institutions dedicated to transforming the lives of the poor (rather than just feeding them) is impressive, and long. But even the best net can’t catch everyone, and even the most successful programs have to deal with people who are resistant to the help they need, sometimes because they’ve been trapped in a cycle of hopelessness for so long. These are the “unworthy poor,” as Dorothy Day called them – and the ones in direst need of compassion.
“Give to the one who begs from you.” What simple words! Why is it, then, that so many of us purported followers of Jesus resist them? Anyone who has read the Bible knows that both the Old and New Testaments are full of exhortations to look after the poor by giving alms. At the same time, we contemporary Christians seem to have no shortage of pious arguments against doing this. (“Won’t they just use it for alcohol?” a friend protested – one who has himself been known to kick back with a beer at the end of a long day.) We tell ourselves it’s not because we’d miss a dollar here or there, but because of what “they” might ask for next. And so, because we’re anxious that we might end up involved in a time-consuming “situation,” we shrink from fulfilling a simple request for a quarter. In short, we’re too up-tight to respond from the heart.