As our Bible study group sat around the table the other night, squirming over those one-liners Jesus threw into the Sermon on the Mount, we got ourselves snagged on this phrase: “Give to everyone who begs from you.” (Matthew 5:42) Nobody at the table was ready to agree with that, myself included.
We reminisced over variations of that generic experience: the guy squatting at a busy intersection, holding a sign begging for money. The specifics vary. Sometimes it’s a woman. Sometimes the sign tells of homelessness, being out of work, being a military veteran, being hungry, or being physically disabled. Occasionally we encounter a guy with a peg leg, or an eye patch, or ratted clothing. Wheelchairs are common. And we wonder how long he’s been there, what the backstory is, and what he’s actually going to do with the money he collects. And by the way, how much does he collect from that spot? And does he have any other means of support?
Drat it Jesus! How dare you just order us to give to everyone who begs from us. And it’s not just what you said, it’s the way you said it: “Give to everyone who begs”...drop mic, leave audience with mouths agape.
Me being me, I will eventually do what Jesus says to do, but not before analyzing it. So, here goes my analysis:
The most common beggar in my life is Earl-the-too-fat-Cat who lives with me. As soon as I open the refrigerator door, or the cupboard, (or the secret drawer where I hide my snacks) he shows up. Every time I go to the kitchen, he jumps up on my chair at the dinner table and waits patiently for me to fix us something. When I try to sit down, he stays right there, merely scooching back a little. He feels like some sort of furry lumbar support. When I start to eat, he jams his head under my armpit and stares at me, a signal he’d like a sample. If I ignore him, he reaches his paw around to my wrist and tries to redirect my arm from my mouth to his. If I’m eating something he doesn’t like (like salad) he uses some sort of telepathy to guilt me. I will then get up and add crackers or bacon bits or candy to my salad so there will be something to share with him.
When Jie-my-wife is at the table with us, I’ll say this for her: she never begs. She just gives orders. There’s a difference. When it comes to food, Jie is the general in our house, I’m the foot soldier, and Earl-the-Cat is the street urchin. It isn’t right, but it is what it is. I’m the only one I feel sorry for. Maybe that feeling of powerlessness is part of the reason I have difficulty with beggars.
As a pastor, I’ve engaged plenty of people who wandered into the church and played the begging game. In one church I served, I was walking from the parsonage (across the street) to the church when I came up behind a man and two boys. They didn’t see me. The man was telling the boys, “now when you get in there, tell the preacher that you go to his Sunday School and that you don’t have any food in the house. Get him to give you at least forty bucks. I’ll wait out here.” Fact is, we didn’t even have a Sunday School at that church. Maybe it’s me, but 90% of the time I suspected I was being played by the people who came begging. My suspicions were almost always reinforced by whatever evidence I could glean later. Maybe I’m an odd duck: I’ll willingly pay my taxes to help people who are down and out. But I resent anyone who tries to play on my religious sensibilities to get something from me.
Of course, there are other things that people beg. They beg for time, for pardon, for forgiveness, for attention, for indulgences, for privilege, for position, for praise…
Fancying myself both a biblical scholar and historian, I can easily twist Jesus’ words around to suit myself, if I want. I can point to religious traditions (including Christianity and Judaism) that sanctioned groups of “beggars,” people who were so devoted to the faith and to good works, that they had no other job. These mendicants would beg from others to keep themselves fed, clothed, and sheltered. I could claim that Jesus only meant these types of folks when he said to give to beggars. But then, the saying comes in the same section where Jesus asks, “If you only love those who love you, what reward do you deserve?” (…darn Sermon on the Mount, nary a loophole in it!)
Try as we might, the whole roomful of Geneseo’s Wednesday night scholars could not find a way around giving something to that peglegged fellow at the intersection. The best I could come up with (later) was the beggar in Acts 3. He was a lame man who begged for alms while sitting on the temple grounds. Peter and John (disciples of Jesus) approached him and took in his begging. Then they studied t him and ordered him to study them. It instantly went from being a game to being a nascent relationship. As it turned out, Peter and John didn’t have exactly what the beggar wanted. And so they gave him what they had: powers they had obtained from another relationship of theirs. Is that perhaps the fulfillment of what Jesus commanded us: to share the source of our power and well-being with others, not just a mere tip out of our abundance?
Jie is a newer Christian than me, doesn’t read the Bible in Greek, and is not nearly as sophisticated when it comes to theology and biblical interpretation as I am. She likes to keep one and five dollar bills in the car. When she sees that guy with the pegleg, or whatever variation of him materializes before her eyes, she likes to reach in the armrest, pull out a few bills, and hand them to to the supplicant.
I’m getting the hang of that. It may not be exactly what Jesus meant, but it moves me closer to getting Jesus’ drift than all my other scholarship and loophole hunting. We are often transformed by our own gestures of generosity. At least, those kinds of gestures put a right spirit in us so our hearts and minds are open to what learning comes next.