by Linda McMillan
Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. (Luke 6:30, NIV)
There are several essays floating around the internet about whether or not to give money to panhandlers. The essays often advise giving socks or bus tickets instead. Still others advise that it’s better to give money to a social service agency. I am pretty sure that’s good advice, but it’s not enough, it doesn’t meet the standard of giving to all who ask.
Of course, giving money to panhandlers (or giving them socks, or bus tickets, or anything else) is surely not going to make much difference to them, it is not going to make society better either. As a well-meaning friend once said to me, “You’re not going to change the world,” and she was right! What has happened to me in my years of giving to others is something far more profound. Giving without question has not changed the world, it has changed me.
The writer of Luke has given us more than a rule to follow, it is a way of transformation.
There’s not a lot of guidance about it in the Bible. It does not say how much to give, and most of us do not have a lot of extra money. What I have found, though, is that even when I just give a little, it enlarges my own heart. I’ve developed a consciousness of plenty, and I don’t fear any lack. This is the mind-set of a Christian. It is freedom. There may be other ways to cultivate that, but for me it came through giving and not worrying too much about what happens to the money.
The Bible also doesn’t say what to give, but I think it’s implied that you should give people what they ask for. That’s how God treats people, after all. If we ask for a fish, we don’t get a snake.* So, before I give a pair of socks or a tube of lotion I make sure that it’s something that is actually wanted by the recipient. Giving money is usually better, though, because it gives people the dignity of making their own choices. They may not make the same choices I would make, but they have the dignity of deciding for themselves. That’s a gift of value, even if a few coins are not.
There is a panhandler who sits at the Lianhua Subway Station in the south west part of Shanghai. I’ve heard that she’s got an iPhone 6 Plus underneath all her rags and that she gets picked up by her husband in a Mercedes every night. I don’t know how people know that, but it’s what they say. When I worked near that subway station I gave her her a yuan (about .20 US) every day and I’d say, “Thank you.” She may have more money than I do, and most certainly a better mobile phone, but she has given me something I could never get on my own.
Giving to her reminds me that I am a con-artist too. I may hide it better, but we are all at least a little bit dishonest about ourselves.
It reminds me that I am a poor sinner, just like everybody else. I may not need money, but I am as needy and poor as anybody else, thank God.
I am more connected to my neighborhood and the world when I respond to the needs and opportunities around me. For me it has been a spiritual discipline that has paid off. There are other ways, of course. But, don’t dismiss this one just because some expert pretends to know better than the Bible. The writer of Luke was giving us good advice. It’s not so that we can change the world, it’s so we can be changed by it.
“…and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Luke 12:48
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China and is an avid ukelele player