“If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?”—James 2:15-16
In theory, most of us easily agree with the need to give to the less fortunate. But there’s often a difference, in our minds at least, between writing a check to a charity or even volunteering to serve in a soup kitchen, and helping a disadvantaged stranger we run across on the street.
Maybe it’s that in our over-sanitized world we can find it clean, easy and convenient to give through a charity. Or perhaps the charity itself is seen as somehow validating the needs of the needy. But when we come across an apparent homeless person on the street, there’s no charity acting as an intermediary—it’s us and them, and we’re left to our own discretion as to whether or not we should give.
This is just my thinking on the subject, but I think that God puts the needy right in front of us precisely to see how we’ll respond.
The reasons NOT to give to the homeless
When it comes to giving to strangers on the street, most of us can usually come up with a laundry list of reasons not to do it. Here are some of the more typical ones I’ve heard—or have used myself—to support not giving:
- He’ll just use it for drugs or alcohol
- She looks perfectly capable of getting a job to me
- He might be dangerous—best to keep a distance
- She probably has a BMW parked around the corner and begging is how she pays for it
- What did he do that so ticked off his family and friends that now he has nowhere to go?
- I saw a news piece that showed this guy who used to be an engineer making six figures just quit his job one day to live on a park bench—I’ll bet most of them are just like him
- He looks dirty and he probably has a disease—I don’t want to go near him
- There are organizations that help people like her—maybe she’s really not needy
- I’ll pray for him, but I won’t give him anything; you never know about these people
Any one of these rationalizations could in fact be true—but does that mean we shouldn’t give to the person we’re hanging these claims on?
The reasons why we SHOULD give to the homeless
Do you want to know something that’s really sad? I didn’t have to think too long to come up with nine reasons not to give; I’ll bet you could add a few more to that list too. When we see a person who’s down and out—and we don’t really want to give anyhow–it’s easy to convince ourselves that doing so is dangerous, hazardous or even misguided. The human being inside of us doesn’t like being around the downtrodden. But you want to know something else? The downtrodden are exactly the people who Jesus directed us to help!
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ “—Matthew 25:37-40
Taken in that light, we should consider giving to the homeless to be a privilege. Giving to the homeless reveals our true heart because it’s a demonstration of what we’ll do when no one else is looking, or when there will be no benefit to us of any kind. When we write a check to a charity we get a tax break, and when we volunteer in a place where others are also volunteering, others can see our generosity. But when we give to the homeless on the street who sees?
God does. And what ever our misgivings might be, He approves when we do.
In the end, it’s between the receiver and God
There’s one more point about giving to the homeless that we need to cover. Even if the person we’re giving to isn’t truly needy, that isn’t our concern. We’re given a directive by God to help the needy. When in doubt, it’s better to give to a person who looks needy and may not actually be, than to refuse to give to someone who truly is.
No matter how suspicious we may be of the homeless person before us, we can never truly know what his or her situation is. It may be even worse than we suspect.
We need to do the right thing, which is to give, then leave the consequences of a bogus situation to be worked out between God and the recipient of our giving. We’re “in the clear” so to speak.
“Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.”—Luke 6:30
That passage is pretty direct—give to everyone who asks. We can never go wrong with it. There may be times when we aren’t in a position to give, but when we are we need to do it and suspend our judgments about the worthiness of the person we’re giving to. When we do, we’re trusting God with the outcome.
And isn’t trust something else God asks of us?
Do you ever hesitate to give to the homeless? Is there ever a time when not giving might be justified?