This post is dedicated to my friend Quinn Smith, who has loved and served homeless and panhandlers with a devotion and compassion consistent with the Gospel.
Yesterday as I was walking down Pennsylvania Ave in Washington D.C. I encountered homeless person after homeless person. Partly to my relief I found myself to be without any cash or change to give to them. One woman in particular was in a sad state, smoking, dirty, in some sort of altered mental state. She saw me coming and called out, “I’ve been waiting for you all week! Do you have my money?” I apologized and told her I didn’t have any money, she continued to act like she knew me and as I walked on she said, “Alright, well bring me a new pair of pants. You know my size.”
Soon the awkwardness of that moment had faded, as it always does. When pulling up to a stoplight where someone disheveled, likely drunken, stands there asking for money it is awkward. We immediately shift into defense mode. We either try and pretend that we see it all the time and just ignore it, or we tell ourselves we can’t help them all, or more often than that we actually consider our disregard as virtuous, keeping them from being able to go and buy one more bottle of booze that will push their organs closer to failure or one more pornographic magazine that will twist their already ill mind. When faced with the grim social realities of sin in its most pitiful forms we often don’t know exactly how to respond.
How should we respond to panhandlers? How should we respond when we do have a little change in our pocket? As I considered those extremely poor, homeless, and in bondage I began to consider how my response to their plea might be informed by the grace that God shows to all every single day, even those that reject him. You see, as Christians, we act according to certain absolute truths, theology informs practice. Living life as a Christian is a profoundly theological task as we seek to reflect the image of the God who made us and redeemed us through the death and resurrection of His Son.
In Matthew 5:45 Jesus sets forth the truth that God “…makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Paul affirms this in Acts 17:25 “...[God] himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Everything that we have, even the breath we breath is given to us by God. As I consider that I immediately become uncomfortable with the realization of how often I take the things I am given, raw material to be used to magnify the grace and glory of my Creator, and I use it not only for myself but in twisted, sinful ways that are an affront to the very one who has given me everything. I draw in a breath, a gift from God, and I speak profanely, and yet God gives me another. I open my eyes to behold the glory of God in creation and in his word, but with that same sight I lust and covet after that which is not lawful to have. Let us not even begin to speak of those who openly blaspheme God, taking the good gifts he bestows upon them each day and use them to not only serve self but to defecate on the glory of their Benefactor. If God can give generously to all people, then who I am to judge whether or not I should give on the basis of fear that what I give may be misused?
What I want to clarify is that I am not suggesting that we should give when it is certain that our assistance will lead to their harm. But the question I am raising is if perhaps the reformation doctrine of “Common Grace” should inform our acts of charity. We should give to those that ask of us, freely and without suspicion (Matt. 5:42), because God gives to people many good things though he knows they will not give him thanks and they will often use what has been given them perversely. We are commanded to give to him who asks of us, it is up to God to render judgment on that person for the stewardship of what has been given.
Theology is deeply practical. The reality that God in his grace gives to all men good things, even when they turn and use those good things for evil, should lead us who are called to be imitators and image bearers of God (Eph 5:1) to reflect his grace to even the undeserving, giving though that giving may be abused. For those who are in Christ we realize that not only does God give us life and many other good things to enjoy, but we have received salvation from sin and its judgment. Yet we so often abuse God’s grace and live as if we were under the old regime of sin. This reality should lead us into lives of humble generosity.
I know right now the objections that might be raised to this, but we must submit ourselves to God’s word and orient our lives to his Gospel, even if it seems crazy at times. So next time I see a panhandler my prayer is that I will react in away that is consistent with the character of God and his working in the world.