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God Squad: Should I give to panhandlers?

Whether to give to beggars on the street

Whether to give to beggars on the street is a common moral dilemma. Credit: © Andrey Popov/Dreamstime

Q: Every night as I drive home headed to the highway and sit at a stoplight, I always encounter people holding cardboard signs asking for money. I never know if I should give or not. As a practicing Catholic, I am well aware of Jesus teaching to love thy neighbor and treat the least among us as we want to be treated, but I also know that panhandling is illegal and not a long-term solution for homelessness. I generously give to various causes and charities but really struggle when faced with these people in need twice a week. WDYT? — Teacher Feeling Guilty, M

A: Thanks, you dear M, for your kind words and your very common moral dilemma. My answer may shock you. I think that we should ALWAYS GIVE TO BEGGARS. I know that my point of view is controversial and is in fact the opposite of what many of my friends in the hunger world recommend. Let me address the main arguments against giving to beggars:

  • The beggars are scam artists who have a Rolls-Royce parked around the corner. Or if they don't have a Rolls, they are just going to use the money for liquor or drugs.

This is a terrible argument not because it is false but because you have no idea if it is true or false. You are ascribing the very worst motives to a total stranger. If they are not truly in need, the sin is theirs; but if they are in need, the sin of standing idly by the blood of your neighbor is yours. (Leviticus 19:16) 

The Bible describes the evil of the Pharaoh as a hardening of his heart. This is like the way your fingers and toes gradually get numb in the cold. Faced with poverty and need, we can allow our hearts to harden. Giving is a way of keeping our hearts soft in a hard world.

  • Beggars are lazy bums who would rather beg than go out and get a job.

This also may be true, but you have no idea if it is true. Furthermore, you have no idea if that person is able to work. There are many disabilities that prevent our neighbors from working a 9-to-5 job. There are family child-care needs; there are housing needs that are often unaffordable.

Look, begging is humiliating. Ask yourself why you would immediately think so negatively about a person who is willing to confess need publicly? What does one dollar mean to you? You nongivers are protecting small change against a great need. When was the last time you were hungry with no food to eat?

We are taught to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and so we should know the heart of the stranger. Jesus teaching in Matthew 25:40-45 is that what we do for the least among us is actually done for Jesus. The rabbis taught that the Messiah will appear as a beggar at the gates of Rome and whoever gives him food and bandages his wounds will cause him to announce himself and save the world. Every time I give, I whisper to myself, "Maybe, just maybe, that was the Messiah."

If you are still paralyzed in your goodness, there are things you can do to protect yourself from losing one whole dollar to a drug addict with a Rolls. Keep a book of coupons from fast-food places or some sandwiches in your car and give the beggars you meet food coupons or actual food.

You know, the Messiah has got to eat!

Comments from readers on the feminine side of God:

From E: While technically incorrect, I think many Catholic and Orthodox people fulfill their need for the "sacred feminine" in the Blessed Mother or Theotokos. She had "relations" with the Holy Spirit (God) and bore God, as His Queen, she's right up there with him at all times. Many people regard her as all-powerful just because she's the triune God's favorite, or so it's believed.

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at godsquadquestion@aol.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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