In our city, we often see men and women standing on the roadside holding out a cardboard sign that reads, “I’m Hungry. Need Help. God Bless.” Seeing them usually causes some kind of wrestling within my heart.
It is a good thing.
For a minute I get a reality check. I remember that not everyone has a home, a bed, and food to eat – a few things that, for those of us who have them, we can easily take for granted.
I remember that I am a person with resources.
I have to decide how I am going to respond. Am I going to respond to their plea or do I lock my door, roll up my window and look ahead as though they don’t exist. I have a choice to make.
Some say, “That’s a no-brainer. You don’t give out money to panhandlers, period.” But, I am uncomfortable with this kind of approach to the needs of our fellow human beings.
Sometimes I respond with a few coins, a dollar bill, a silent prayer, or “I’m sorry I don’t have any change on me.” I have also rolled up my window and looked away hoping that the signal light will change quickly.
We have had conversations with our kids about caring for the homeless. As adults, we try to teach our kids what is right, but sometimes it is the kids who show us what is right.
A few days ago, one of my daughters challenged me to think differently about how I give to the homeless. We were in a hurry (isn’t that how it is usually?), and I had just gotten off the freeway ramp. There was a man with a sign all too familiar. “Hungry. Help. God bless.” My car is stopped right in front of him, and the girls read the words out loud.
“Mom, he is hungry. Aren’t you going to help him?”
“Let me see what I can do.” Then, as I am keeping my eyes on the signal, I open up my wallet. All I see is a ten dollar bill. No change.
“I only have a ten dollar bill. I don’t have anything to give.” The light turned green, and I was off.
For some reason, I thought they would understand. Any adult would have.
“Why mom? You have ten dollars. Why can’t you give him ten dollars?”
Ouch. She called it.
She pointed out that I could have. I chose not to.
As adults, we are quick to give reasons for why we need to limit our generosity. In her direct, innocent way, she challenged the limitation that we put on generosity towards the homeless.
Here are some reasons that can limit our generosity:
1. Giving money to the homeless doesn’t help them because they will use it on drugs or alcohol.
There are reasons for not giving to panhandlers because there are situations when this kind of giving does not serve them. But, we have to hold these reasons in tension with Jesus’ teaching to be generous and to give to those who ask for our help. We genuinely don’t know how they will spend the money. Many of us assume that it will be for drugs or alcohol. But, we don’t know. We limit our generosity by assuming the worst.
I could have gone on and given a heady explanation of why I don’t give $10 to a homeless man to justify my decision. But, at the moment, I knew that the real reason was that I had not considered being that generous to panhandlers. I usually gave my leftover coins or small bills, not $10.
But, what I wanted my daughter to learn at that moment, and what I felt convicted by, was that a homeless panhandler deserve generosity.
My seven-year-old daughter was right.
I could have given my ten dollars, not just loose change.
2. We cannot stop, we don’t have enough time, and we are in a hurry.
We as adults are so good at coming up with reasons for why we cannot or will not do something. But, I have found kids to be the opposite. In general, they think, we can and ought to do something.
A few years ago, while we were driving up to northern California for a vacation, one of our kids made us stop for an hour to help a homeless man. She saw a homeless man lying on the street. My husband and I didn’t see him, but she did, or she thought she did.
She really wanted to go back and help him, so we made a U-turn, going in the opposite direction from our destination, in search of this homeless man. We didn’t find him, but we ended up stopping to help another man. She taught us to stop to reach out. She showed us that it is worth an hour out of our time to care for a needy stranger.
The older I get, the more I want to be like children. I want to think about why we can be generous, why we can help, and why we ought to do good, rather than to go straight to giving excuses.
3. We know more about generosity than kids.
There is a saying, “Children are to be seen, not heard.” This saying is so contrary to how Jesus viewed children. As a mom, I can honestly say, some of my deepest moments of conviction about sin came from listening to our kids. We need to listen to our children more.
They have a few things to teach us about being children of God. Jesus believed it to be true. True enough that he singled out a child and told the adults, “Truly, I say to you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3
Perhaps, instead of debating about what it means to become like children, we ought to listen to them and be led by them in practicing their Biblical convictions. We might discover what Jesus meant.
We came to another red light. This time, a sunburned homeless woman stood with all too familiar sign. “Hungry. No drugs. Help. God Bless.”
I rolled down the window and handed her a ten dollar bill saying a quiet prayer for her. She said, “Thank you,” received the money, turned around, and kept staring at the ten dollar bill. She stared at it as the light turned green and we were driving off.
My daughter challenged me to see the limits I put on generosity.
What about you? How do you put limits on generosity? What have you learned from your children?
“But, if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him. Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” 1 John 3:18