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Where your treasure is: how would Jesus handle panhandlers?

Where your treasure is: how would Jesus handle panhandlers? October 18, 2021

Panhandlers, homeless folks, beggars – they are a tragically common sight in every city.

Growing up as an evangelical, I was taught – maybe not explicitly, but taught nonetheless – that:

  1. Beggars are lazy and don’t want to work. AND/OR,
  2. They have lived irresponsibly and are now getting their just desserts. AND,
  3. If we help them, we will be encouraging them to keep begging, and they’ll never contribute to society. AND/OR,
  4. If we give them money, they’ll probably spend it on booze or drugs.

These “facts” were all corollaries of 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12

“For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

As the saying goes, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

panhandler
“Trashcan and a Homeless Man” by St Stev is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Reformation

To my shame, I admit that I rarely gave spare change to desperate people. I did contribute to certain charities – the ones that preached the Gospel along with providing food or diapers or whatever. I figured, as did every evangelical I knew, that it’s better to be saved and starving than unsaved and fed. (Notice the simplified, binary thinking here.)

As I left evangelicalism behind, I began to question every belief. I also finally began to get a proper education in social justice (some books I found helpful are listed here). My entire perspective changed in a profound way. My only regret is that it took me so long to get there.

In brief, I discovered that most or all I’d learned (from Christians) about poverty and the poor was wrong – not just that, it was un-Christlike.

Question: How had I spent 50+ years doing the exact opposite of what Jesus instructed and modeled, all the while thinking I was pleasing him?

Answer: I did what low-key racist ideology, cloaked in Scripture, taught me to do. I thought I was obeying the Bible. I lived by the motto,”My pastor’s interpretation of the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

I know, those are strong words, but I stand by them. We “knew” those lazy, irresponsible, drug users were people of color. That’s racism.

(TBH, some bits of that old ideology still haunt me, and I have to consciously put them out of my mind.)

What did Jesus say/do?

Jesus fed the hungry. He asked no questions, preached no pre-meal sermons, passed no judgments. He simply fed.

Well, technically, he told his disciples to do it – but the disciples wanted the crowd to pay their own way:

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:15-16).

Jesus ministered to the sick. No strings attached – not even a thank-you (see Luke 17:11-19).

Jesus literally told us that helping the needy is the same as helping Jesus himself. Let us not forget: these actions make us welcome or unwelcome in the Kingdom (Matthew 25:31-46).

Jesus taught, “When you host a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or brothers or relatives or rich neighbors. Otherwise, they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you host a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed. Since they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14). That’s pretty straightforward. Do we dare take Jesus at his word on this one?

Jesus also said, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

And, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). Again, that’s “give to the one who begs from you” – not “tell the one who begs from you to stop being lazy and get a job”; not “refuse the one who begs from you because they’re probably a drunk or drug addict.” Sounds like Jesus might be more interested in our priorities than our expertise as social workers.

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What do the epistles say?

The message of the epistles is the same:

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16).

“But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

These words are not ambiguous. There’s no reasonable way to interpret them to make caring for the poor optional.

But what about the facts?

It’s great to know what the Bible commands, but unless we deal with the attitude of our hearts, we won’t be joyfully obedient. In the next post, we’ll see if our assumptions about the poor are valid. Those assumptions are:

  1. Beggars are lazy and don’t want to work. AND/OR,
  2. They have lived irresponsibly and are now getting their just desserts. AND,
  3. If we help them, we will be encouraging them to keep begging, and they’ll never contribute to society. AND/OR,
  4. If we give them money, they’ll probably spend it on booze or drugs.

Hope to see you back!

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RELATED POSTS YOU MIGHT FIND INTERESTING:

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Palestinians don’t just need peace – they need Just Peace

The (not so) secret message of the Good Samaritan


FEATURED IMAGE: “Trashcan and a Homeless Man” by St Stev is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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