"Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." James 1:22 (NKJV)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Week 28: The One Who Asks

"Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." ~ Matthew 5:42

This week's command started me thinking about panhandlers. We don't see many of them out here in the suburbs, although I've noticed a few more lately hanging out at the Interstate off-ramps and outside of Wal-Mart. In St. Louis, where we go to church and often visit friends, we see them frequently. For short periods of time, I've lived in other places, including Chicago and the Balkans, where rampant panhandling existed.

Over the years, with a few exceptions, my strategy for dealing with panhandlers has been to walk (or drive) quickly past them without making eye contact. I'm not without compassion for the poor, but I hate being taken advantage of. A lot of panhandlers are not what they seem. Most are not homeless. If you give money away to panhandlers, some of them will turn around and use it to buy drugs and alcohol. Some panhandlers are also making a pretty good living at it. If you want to learn a bit more, check out this article from SeattlePI.com.

Many groups that advocate on behalf of the poor ask people not to give money to panhandlers, but rather to give money to worthy organizations that help meet the basic needs of homeless people. In St. Louis, it doesn't get more worthy than The Bridge.

So, the panhandler issue seems pretty clear. It's just not wise to give to panhandlers. Right? Once again, I'm running up against the uncompromising nature of these Biblical commands. There's no loophole in this command. There's no room for excuses and justifications. It's simply: "Give to the one who asks you."

Feeling cornered by a command that I really don't like, I turned to John Piper this week. I was hoping that Piper, one of our great living Christian Bible scholars, could put this command into context and help me understand why I don't need to give to panhandlers. No such luck. Here is what Pastor Piper has to say:

Suppose you die and you're standing before Jesus Christ, who surrendered his body to spitting and shame and torture and death so that undeserving sinners (like you and me) might be drawn into eternal joy, and he inquires how you handled the people who asked you for money - you know, panhandlers, beggars, street people, drunks, drifters. What would you say?

. . .

[Y]our'e not going to feel very good about saying, "I never got taken advantage of. I saw through their schemes. I devloped really shrewd counter-questions that would expose them. So I hardly ever had to give anything." Do you know what I think the Lord Jesus is going to say to that - the Lord Jesus, the consummately, willingly, savingly abused and exploited Jesus? I think he is going to say, "That was an exquisite imitation of the world. Even sinners give to those who deserve to be given to. Even sinners pride themselves on not being taken advantage of."

John Piper, Palm Sunday Sermon, April 13, 2003

I'm stuck. There's no denying what this command requires. The only question is whether I will follow Him, or not. For us Christians, obedience is not optional. To paraphrase Martin Luther, if you're not going to do what your Bible says, then just throw it in the garbage with the banana peels and the used coffee filters.

To be honest, however, I still don't feel very good about handing cash to panhandlers knowing that many of them will use it to supply their drug and alcohol habits. Certainly there is room for wisdom and discernment as we seek to apply God's commands in our lives. I think it's a question of motives. If we're holding back from giving because we can't stand the possibility of being taken advantage of, then our hearts are wrong. If we're reluctant to hand out cash because we don't want to enable substance abuse, then I think that's OK. So, here, for lack of a better word, is my "compromise."

I've loaded up my wallet, my Honda, and our family Swagger Wagon with McDonald's gift certificates. They come in one-dollar denominations. The plan is to give a couple gift certificates to panhandlers, in lieu of cash. There are over 31,000 McDonald's restaurants in the United States, which means that if you're near civilization there's one within walking distance. McDonald's has a lot of stuff on its $1 menu, including yogurt parfaits (my favorite McDonald's item), cheeseburgers, fruit pies, small drinks, and side salads. I haven't run into any panhandlers since I picked up the gift certificates, but I'm excited about being prepared to respond with some practical help.

The McDonald's Dollar Menu:


  1. It's refreshing to see someone who sees the lack of the loop whole in that passage. As a family, we've made a commitment to obey that command, even though in so many discussions with others it inevitably leads to "well...it just depends..." You can do it!

    Also, are you aware of how much i LOVE this video? I have it memorized.

  2. Another inescapable command that flies in the face of our culture. Ah! Though it's hard, I think we just have to trust that God will "deal" with the recipient of the gift - we're all held accountable for how we are stewards of what God gives us. I think the hope that we could somehow be a blessing to another who is hungry or sick or cold or thirsty should far outweigh our fear of being "used" in our mental scales.

    That being said, I rarely have any cash on me, even change. Then I feel bad because I can't give anything to those who ask.

    I like the McDonald's coupon idea. Bus passes are also great. I need to go pick some up and stash them in my wallet. Good idea, Nathan!

  3. You had to through Piper in there, didn't you?!

    I was just talking to my kids about this. I am going to get some McDonalds certificates as well. Super idea!

    Another thing our church did was make up ziploc baggies of items including water bottles, tootbrush, gospel tract and a business card for the local rescue mission. We just kept it in our car.

    We just saw your mom while she was in Wyoming and told her how much we love to read your blog. Take care.

  4. Great idea, Nathan! This is a really practical way of walking out this command. I think we'll have to adopt the concept into our family, as well!