I was living in a small one bedroom apartment on the south side of Chicago when I came to Christ. Prior to my conversion, I knew nothing about God or the Bible, so everything I read was new and exciting and it wasn’t long until my zeal took me over. I simply believed everything I read, and when I read about the sheep and the goats, I began to look for the poor. To my surprise, they weren’t hard to find. Previously, I only thought about the poor when I thought that I was within one paycheck of becoming one of their number, but after reading Matthew 25, my perspective changed.
That’s when I drove my beat up 1970 Buick by a half shaven, dirty man with eyes of hunger. I saw him out of the corner of my eye; then, I checked my review mirror and saw him, Jesus, sitting on the corner. I took him home, fed him, let him use the shower and gave him one of my t-shirts. We talked about God and salvation and after a couple of hours I took him where he wanted to go, which was to a shelter. So, I left Jesus to sleep at the shelter that night. I never saw him again, or I never saw that man again, and I doubt that he remembers the meeting, but …I still do. And I remember it fondly.
I started doing this thing kind of regularly, always with the thought that the old man or banged up woman might be Jesus. But, I’m sure I didn’t do it as often as I should have, and I am certain it is not for everybody to do. , and frankly, sometimes it could be dangerous. So, what is the right thing to do when confronted with poverty?
The Hand Out (Literally) On the Street
Let’s begin to address poverty at its very basic level, literally one face at a time, because to address poverty systemically removes the intimacy with which we must confront it nearly every day. And by that I mean that most of us walk pass somebody with their hand out every single day, especially if you live in the city. How do we, how should we respond? At the risk of being trite, we must ask the question what would Jesus do? Because that is the real question, isn’t it? We, in this world are ambassadors of Jesus—we are Jesus in this world’s kingdom. And frankly, let’s not forget that how we treat the poor man or woman or child with their hand out is the way that we are treating Jesus.
So, do we simply open up the wallet and throw money at this guy who is holding up the cardboard sign with the scrawled words of “Hungry! Out of work?” Let’s list the issues:
First, while I lived in Bolivia and walked the streets of La Paz, the capital, I was inundated with out stretched hands. Often I had to step over someone lying in the street with their two infants. I passed dirty children in torn, filthy rags, singing off key with a cup in front of them. Some older children did handstands at the red lights and then stretched their blackened hands into the car windows hoping for any kind of reward. And the facts were these: I couldn’t give to everyone I encountered because I would not have enough money to buy anything else including my own rent and food if I did so. When I returned to Chicago, it wasn’t any easier, I found someone with a handout on nearly every highway exit, especially during rush hours.
A second issue is, should we give without concern to how the money is spent? My son, Tim, posted a very interesting message on Facebook called, “Why would someone on food stamps have an iphone.” It generated a big response and there were many comments from folks who were similarly judged when receiving food stamps or some other help. Things like, “When I was on food stamps, my mom let me use her phone during the day.” Another response was “I have to have a phone because I have small children and my plan is a minute plan which costs less than a land line phone.” The point of this is that we should be very careful before we judge, but, it is different when you are concerned about giving to someone who while standing in front of you reeks of alcohol. I feel, as a good steward, it would be wrong to give money only to see it spent on more alcohol or drugs. In this way, I could be hurting the poor man rather than helping.
A third issue is a very popular response. “What if they are taking advantage of me, or the system, or…” You can fill in the blanks, but it is possible that a person is presenting themselves falsely as a poor person.
Finally, do we walk pass the open palm thinking, and sometimes even mumbling, “Hey, our church gives to the poor, go talk to them.” You can substitute the word “organization” or even the word, “government” for the word “church” in that last statement. Is that the way we should respond? Does that fulfill our Christian obligation, our duty, Matthew 25?
[Small ranting diversion: Before I continue I want to address an issue that I encounter in less than five minutes after I start speaking about the poor. Inevitably, someone will start their own tirade about the government, the spending of our tax dollars (or the misspending) and how the government should not be doing the church’s job. I want to answer that firmly: This has nothing to do with our response to the poverty we encounter. That is your politics and not your Christianity. Please stop confusing the two. That said, I want to address another point: The Government is NOT stopping you from feeding the poor, they are not stopping you from inviting the poor to your church service, they are not stopping you from helping—go ahead and help!]
A Suggested Response to Feed the Hungry You Meet
So how do we respond to the outstretched palm and the hungry face on the street in a manner that is kind and compassionate, shows with understanding the words of Jesus when he said, “The poor you will always have with you?” And the words of Paul when he said, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat?” How do we answer the sad eyes of a mother holding a dirty hand of her four year old daughter who doesn’t understand why they are standing in the cold with growling stomachs?
First, there is a plan of action that I take. It involves my relationship with Jesus and my prayer life and it is the only response I can have as my first step. I must stop and wait and I must ask the Lord, my God, what He wants me to do. While it may seem like the most obvious, I believe it is the most neglected response. Before I walk by, I want to know what God says about the woman standing in front of me. He knows how much I need, how much I have and he knows the needs of the one in front of me. I must “trust in the Lord with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding,” but I acknowledge him in all my ways and He will make my paths straight. Prov. 3:5,6. There is great freedom in this and fulfillment of loving my God with all my heart, soul and might and then loving my neighbor as myself.
Second, things that help me are that I rarely, and only when directed by God, give a person on the street cash money. And no I don’t give them my credit card! If someone is hungry, I offer to buy them food. I’ve given leftover pizza away and taken people to restaurants. In this way, I would not be giving money to someone to buy alcohol or drugs.
And third, I pray with them. When praying you can sometimes find out other interesting things, like how they lost a job, or how they would love to work. In this case, you may be able to send them somewhere they can get a job or apply for a job…after you feed them.
But, I should warn you, this more require more than the money in your pocket. This may require something we sometimes value more than $5. This may require your time.
I have taken people home, given hitchhiker’s rides, let people sleep in a tent in my yard, but never without praying about it first and using some common sense. But one thing we cannot do, is walk past and leave Jesus hungry in the street. I do not believe that when Jesus spoke about the sheep and the goats, it meant that you didn’t have to concern yourself with the poor simply because your favorite institution does, and that means even your church.
Let’s present ourselves before him the next time we see a poor person in the street, and ask what he wants us to do. And in this way, take up our cross and follow him.
Lord, I pray that you help us all.
Next article: And now for the church: How do we reach the poor with the love of God? This is a response for the individual church working as the kingdom of God.