Do I give to the panhandler?

Dear Fr. Joe: Do you give to the panhandler? I feel guilty walking by someone, but I’m afraid giving money just perpetuates the problem.

Great question! Let’s get right to it.

There are, in my mind, a few ways people respond to beggars. One school of thought says that if you give them anything, you are participating in sin, because they may be taking that money and doing something evil or unhealthy with it.

I’m not a big fan of this school of thought. The people who say it probably pay taxes – and you know that not all the money our government collects is used for life-giving, wholesome things. Not giving people money because they might do something evil with it is – in my mind – usually a justification for a lack of charity, or revelatory of an unhealthy distrust of people.

The second school of thought starts off on a similar vein, but ends with a holy twist: Don’t give beggars money when they ask, but be sure and buy them something to eat. I like this idea, I think. Ignoring a beggar or instructing him about getting his life together does not work and is not helpful. However, choosing to feed a hungry person or get her a place for the night? Wow – that is good stuff! In fact, it is one of the reasons you and I are put on the earth. (One of the other reasons is tied intricately to Double Stuf Oreo consumption, but I won’t go into that here). The great thing about this response is that it offers help, reminds the beggar of his value and worth, and reminds the giver of what she is called to do, all while minimizing the risk of your help being misused.

The third school of thought says that whenever you are approached, you help in any way you can. I like this as well. I have given money to panhandlers with a strong sense that they were going to use it to buy alcohol, but I didn’t have the time or resources to go buy them food. I guess that, in the end, I would rather be burned for being naive than for being cynical.

The key is to respond! Homeless people often speak of being perceived as “invisible”; they see the folks walking by pretending they are not there. We can never allow this to happen in our hearts. We are ignoring Jesus when we ignore the poorest members of society. We are neglecting an opportunity to take the faith in our hearts and translate it to action. Check out these words from the Book of James:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in Peace, keep warm and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

There are numerous other Scripture passages for us to look at here. The most brutally challenging comes from Matthew in chapter 25, where Jesus informs us that whatever we do to or for the least members of society, we do to him. Jesus literally makes our response to the poor salvific! So, our response to the poor is not just a nice bonus, but essential to our place in heaven someday.

I wanted to include a section from the catechism here, but had trouble picking one. The problem is that there are more than 50 listings in the catechism referring to our need to be charitable people. That in itself is a message. More than a message; that is a challenge.

Be generous today. Give to the beggar. Volunteer at the soup kitchen. Work at your local shelter.

Take your faith and put it into action.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!