Yesterday, as I was walking through downtown Portland with my wife and daughters, I was approached by an older woman pushing a shopping cart. She asked if I had any change. I reached in my pocket, pulled out a $1 bill and handed it to her.
Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you. But it was a big deal to me because it was the first time I’d given money to a panhandler since…since ever, I think.
It’s not that I lacked compassion until yesterday. As a pastor, I’d dealt with many people asking for money and discovered that the majority of people with “Will work for food” signs are deceitful. I not saying they aren’t in genuine need – they are. Rather, their needs are frequently driven by their own addictions and sin. I’ve also learned how pitifully few are interested in genuine change. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. All of us have stories about guys with “Will work for food” signs refusing a job offer.
So rather than “throw my pearls before swine,” as I saw it, I had decided my time and money would be better spent supporting organizations that helped the poor, such our local homeless shelter (you can read about the lessons I learned spending a night there).
Understand, I still believe all that – I’m convinced that giving money to panhandlers seldom does any lasting good. I still believe the best way to help the homeless is to give my time and money to ministries that serve them.
My mistake was thinking that giving money to panhandlers was about them. It’s not. It’s actually about me.
About a month ago I read this passage:
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” NIV Luke 6:35
Like a splinter in my brain, “kind to the ungrateful and wicked” burrowed its way deeper and deeper into me. It cut through all my arguments. Will the panhandlers use my money to support their addiction? Perhaps. Sounds like being kind to the wicked to me. Will they appreciate my gift? I can’t control their response (nor can I let it control me), I’m called to give, even to the ungrateful.
It took me a long time to work through theoretical implications of Jesus’ words and move towards action. About a week ago, I asked to get my change back in $1’s so I could always have some on hand. Then yesterday, as we got out of our van in Portland, I put them in my pocket with a mixture of anticipation and fear. So when that woman approached me, I was able to smile, look her in the eyes, and hand her a dollar.
Did my $1 help her? I don’t know. But I do know that it helped me. It allowed me to act more like my Father. It helped me to be more grateful for his kindness to all of his children, even when we are wicked and ungrateful.
What do think? How do Jesus’ words affect how you feel about giving to panhandlers?