Jared C. Wilson: What Jesus Says to Do When You Meet a Beggar

C.S. Lewis’ stepson Douglas Gresham tells the story of Lewis and a friend walking along the street one day when a beggar approached them asking for money. Lewis’ friend kept walking, but Lewis stopped and emptied his wallet, giving the beggar its contents. After rejoining his friend, he was chastised. “You shouldn’t have done that, Jack. He’ll only spend it all on drink.” Lewis joked, “Well, that’s what I was going to do.”

The situation is a common one and ages old. We are no more faced with beggars today than the disciples were in the first century. In urban settings or rural, the specific approach and contexts may differ, but the neediness and the opportunities do not. What is your response when a stranger asks for money?

You are walking down the street or pulling out of the grocery store parking lot and you are confronted by a haggard figure, perhaps holding a sign, perhaps telling a familiar story about being homeless or hungry or needing to travel to a certain location or having a car out of gas. The stories can be eerily similar. I’ve heard the “I’m trying to get to _______ but don’t have money for gas” story quite a bit. I have offered before to go to the gas station and put gas in their car. Sometimes they agree. Sometimes they don’t. I have offered to get food instead of giving them cash for food. Sometimes they agree. Sometimes they don’t.

Let’s make the options simple for the sake of the gist of the argument. A hand is outstretched before you. Do you put money in it or do you decline?

Most of us at that point begin to measure up the man (or woman) before us. Do they look honest? Do they look authentically “down and out?” Do they look like an alcoholic or drug addict? Then the street smarts kick in. They will probably just spend it on alcohol. I am probably just supporting their drug habit. If they put just as much energy into finding a job as begging for money, they wouldn’t be in this situation. If they weren’t so lazy, they wouldn’t have to suffer this indignity. By giving them money I’m just enabling them, not actually helping them.

The street smarts—based on assumptions and presumptions, not actual knowledge of the person—are thinly veiled justifications for not helping. They help us feel better about saying no.

What does Jesus say?

The Sermon on the Mount is so impractical. So inefficient. If you were designing a religious system for maximum ease and self-actualization, this would not be it. The whole thing seems designed to make its adherents “get taken” left and right. Somebody asks for my coat, and I give them my shirt too? Somebody asks for a mile, and I go with them two? Somebody hits me, and I offer them my other cheek? This isn’t only not street smart, it isn’t even common sense. Jesus is asking us to put ourselves in some very vulnerable positions. And in Matthew 5:42, he says:

Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Immediately we begin thinking of all sorts of loopholes and footnoted caveats to explain that this doesn’t mean exactly what it says. And maybe some of those caveats are right. For instance, if you know someone’s going to waste money on an addiction, not just suspect they are, it’s probably wiser to give them another form of help—a meal, loving counsel, a friendship. We only ought to take care that our refusal to give what is being asked is based on facts, not imagination, and is not the “plausible argument” we’re using to justify our disobedience to a pretty clear command that comes with no asterisks. “Give to the one who begs from you.”

Is Jesus smart? Does Jesus know the way the world actually is? Can he be trusted in this moment to give us sound counsel?

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SOURCE: Church Leaders