When you see a homeless man with a sign saying, “Hungry, need a meal”, what is the biblical thing to do? Here are possible answers: (a) Be generous: Give him a quarter, a dollar or a five-dollar bill; (b) Be tough: Go on by, being careful not to make eye contact; (c) Select some other option.
Lots of people choose (a) and feel good about it. If they are members of the religious left, they might even explain their behavior by citing the famous verse from Matthew 25, “Whatever you did to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” That verse deserves to be taken very seriously, but before we blindly use it to justify handouts we need to ask: Who are the least of these in America, and what kind of help is real help?
Certainly, children threatened with death before birth by abortion are among the least of these, as are women abandoned by their husbands and children who grow up without fathers. But what about able-bodied homeless men? Does irresponsibility qualify a person for the ranks of the least of these?
How do we handle the fact that dollars given to panhandlers most often go for drugs or alcohol? Jesus does not include in his list of commended charitable acts, “When I was strung out you gave me dope.” If we take seriously Christ’s words, “Whatever you did to the least of these my brethren, you did to me,” then giving money that goes for drugs is like sticking heroin into Jesus’ veins.
What, then, of (b)? There is something to be said for shunning able-bodied homeless men. Think of how misery restored to his senses the prodigal son in Luke 15. If (to alter the parable) the prodigal on his way home had been given money, or even invited to one of today’s homeless shelters that offers free food, housing, clothing, and medicine, without requiring any effort in return, an ending like this would have been logical:
The prodigal son stayed on and became used to panhandling in the morning, drinking fortified wine and smoking some joints in the afternoon, and watching movies at the shelter in the evening. Meanwhile, the father sat on his porch in the late afternoon, yearned for the opportunity to hug his son and prepare a feast — but the son never came.
Nevertheless, avoidance of eye contact is not biblical. Jesus always looked at people — looked deep into their souls. In Acts 3, when Peter and John encountered a man crippled from birth who asked them for money, “Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I have none, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk'” — and the man did.
If Peter and John had been rich, would they have settled for almsgiving? Or might Peter have said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, here is a sandwich”? No on both counts. Jesus’ true followers hope to change lives, not just sustain what passes for living. Peter was given the authority to perform a physical miracle with a crippled man. None of us has that power — but maybe we can be God’s servants in helping people overcome spiritual and psychological sicknesses.
The best answer is (c) — but what should “other” be? Some say we should spend most of our time each week speaking at length with each homeless man we encounter, and offering biblical counsel. Some indeed are called to that, but most of us have other callings by day and families by night.
A still difficult but more workable suggestion is this: Tell every homeless man you encounter that there is an alternative; that he is a human being created in God’s image and can do better than he is doing; that there are people who will help him. Give him a card with directions to a place where people will help him. And, if you are not otherwise committed in your volunteer activities, spend one evening or weekend day at the place yourself, and contribute to it.
Where are such places? Lots of shelters, including some that call themselves Christian, should be avoided. Those bad ones treat people as pets: Here’s some food in your bowl, here’s a place to sleep, that’s a good boy. But in every large city there’s usually a good one or two that treats people as made in God’s image, with souls as well as bodies, capable of living and working virtuously.
Good ones I’ve visited include the Gospel Mission in Washington, the McAuley Mission in New York City, Step 13 in Denver, the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, and Victory Fellowship in Austin and San Antonio. They all offer effective compassion that is challenging, personal, and spiritual, rather than the false help that treats people as animals. They all make use of volunteers to engage in one-on-one mentoring. They all deal with the hunger that cannot be satisfied by a drink, a drug, or a dollar.