Pastor Roger Barkley asks, what is the ethical thing to do when panhandlers ask for money?
The Gift of Panhandlers
Psalm 139 2-2-20
Exiting the 405 at Devonshire the other day, I got caught at the traffic signal when came that moment we all dread: A grubby man stepped off the center curb holding up a handmade sign that read, “Veteran. Hungry. Please help.”
And to drive-home his pitch he held the leash of a scruffy dog and added the words, “God bless you” to the bottom of his sign.
I strategically maneuvered my car to the right lane, hoping he wouldn’t walk between the cars stopped to my left, and then busied myself with studying a detail of my dashboard so we wouldn’t make eye contact.
As he walked up and down the line of stopped cars I asked myself what has become a familiar question, “What are we, as sincere Christians, supposed to do?”
Do we give money to every panhandler?
Do we not give to any?
Do we decide on a case by case basis?
Ethicist Randy Cohen, wrote a column in New York Times Magazine titled “The Ethicist”.
People would write questions about everyday ethical dilemmas, one of which was whether to give money to panhandlers.
He began by saying that no matter what you do you are going to feel terrible.
I found that helpful, because I feel terrible when I don’t give to that tattered man standing at the freeway exit.
Here I am in my nice car while this guy appears to be hungry and in great need.
Am I just hardhearted?
And was that Jesus’ voice I was hearing, Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me?
And, of course, in the back of my mind lingers the haunting thought that if things were to go terribly wrong for me I would like others to reach into their pocket to help.
Yet at other times I feel terrible because after handing-over over some cash I suspect that I had been conned, or maybe I had just paid for someone’s next drug purchase.
I get my hair cut up in Porter Ranch where several times a week a man parks his big, new, tricked-out Dodge pickup in front of the shop, shamelessly takes outs his cardboard “Help a hungry veteran” sign and takes up his position at the Tampa exit collecting donations.
The women in the shop are incensed at his flagrant con.
They’ve even called the police, who say there’s little they can do about it.
I remember him when I see the next panhandler … but then I also wonder if I’m using an isolated incident to rationalize not giving.
It’s an endless loop.
That’s why Randy Cohen says that no matter what we do, we are left feeling terrible.
Some places are dealing with this dilemma by effectively outlawing the poor.
Raleigh, North Carolina now requires background checks and police permits for asking for hand-outs, and they arrest several hundred people a year for panhandling without a permit.
Las Vegas has made it a crime to panhandle with a pet alongside you, recognizing that the pleading eyes of a dog increase a panhandler’s income.
But should we rely on the police to handle our ethical dilemma?
The ethicist Cohen argues that part of our problem as we sit at the offramp evaluating whether this particular “Hungry veteran – God Bless you” is worthy of our buck is that we have not discerned ahead of time what we are called to do.
Without that discernment, we are left to emotionally wrestle through each and every contact.
Cohen says that he decided to never give to panhandlers but that he does contribute generously to organizations he feels are addressing the root causes of poverty.
He says that he has invested time to research where he thinks his money will be most effective, so he doesn’t have to go through the emotionally-exhausting process of deciding several times a day which person he’ll give money to and to whom he’ll say no.
But that doesn’t stop him from feeling terrible as he walks past a homeless person holding out his hand.
He has friends who do just the opposite.
They haven’t selected charities to support, but they give money to almost anyone who asks.
He says that they have thought it through and decided that – for them – they feel they can only have a negligible impact on the causes of poverty, but they can help the person in front of them.
But, of course, they feel terrible when the mail arrives with appeals from good causes that they’ll pass up.
But even though we may feel terrible whenever we come face-to-face with suffering, there still comes a sense of peace with knowing that we are trying to be faithful to the kind of person God created us to be.
I may emotionally feel terrible in the moment of an encounter, but ultimately, I do not have to answer to my emotions.
Emotions come and go … they pull me this way and that, and very often emotions lie to me anyway.
In the post-modern West, we tend to use our personal emotions as the ultimate test of what is right, of what we should do.
That is second nature to us.
But emotions come and go, they change over time.
Different people have very different feelings about similar circumstances.
I feel like a different person after my morning coffee, or if I’ve had a pleasant visit with someone.
But things around me haven’t actually changed, only my feelings.
By themselves, our emotions in the moment are not a good test of truth.
So, I don’t try to answer to my emotions of the moment.
But I do have to answer to the Lord who uniquely created me, who intimately knows me, who is daily counting on me in this life, and who will ultimately judge me.
When I’ve sought-out God to discern who I am called to be in this, I’m not left with the guilt of not being available for every person and every situation.
God’s given me specific gifts, resources and time – not to be everywhere, everything for everybody.
Even in times of darkness or confusion, God knows me.
Psalm 139:11-12 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
The Christian faith is founded on a relationship with God that is profoundly personal, but never private.
God is personal, but God has values and purposes beyond me.
He created me as part of His world, to live-out His purposes.
Psalm 139:13-16 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139 proclaims that God formed me in my mother’s womb, knows my heart and soul, cares about me, seeks me out — but He is not “my” private God.
This is God’s world, we are God’s children whom He chose to be woven into His creation at this particular moment of history.
God sewed you together in your mother’s womb with particular gifts, skills, and passions needed for a unique and important purpose for your time here.
I may feel terrible seeing some suffering I cannot control, but I will feel peace and empowerment when I know that I am trying to do what God created me for.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist and author of a Man’s Search of Meaning, which you’ve heard me say is one the “must-read” books for every one of us.
Frankl spent two years in Nazi slave labor and death camps where most of his family perished.
While there, he made a study of who gave up and died and who survived.
Those who survived tended to be people who found a purpose in their life, even in the horrors of the Nazi camps.
Those who survived tended to be those who shared a crust of bread, or who in some way or other gave encouragement to others.
He later wrote, “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Rather than the shotgun approach of doing a little of this and little of that and never feeling fulfilled, God invites each of us to a time of examination in order to discern our unique mission.
After his liberation by Allied forces, Frankl relished his freedom, but he understood that with freedom comes responsibility.
He once wrote, “I recommend that the Statue of Liberty be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast.”
Accepting responsibility to live-out your gifts in your world is not just another burden, it actually is the pathway to freedom itself … a freedom of life in God that can never be taken from us.
That can be the gift of the panhandlers who greet you every day as you exit the freeway on your way home.
Instead of flitting from thing to thing at the mercy of emotions, always feeling like we aren’t doing enough, they invite us to consider how has God has uniquely equipped us, and so who God specifically want us to help.
That is our responsibility to our Creator and to the world in which we are blessed to live – and living that will bring us peace and purpose.
As Art Cribbs mentioned when he spoke here a couple of weeks ago, Martin Luther King has been sanitized and made respectable.
But during his life he was controversial and despised.
He was targeted by white racists, and by our government, most notably through J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
Democrats and Republicans accused him of being a communist, younger civil rights workers scoffed at his nonviolent beliefs and his celebrity status.
Later, many former friends and allies distanced themselves from him because of his anti-war stance.
When he spoke here at Women’s Fellowship, he lifted his shirt to reveal the scars across his back from multiple beatings.
His life was not easy, but he endured because he’d taken the time and prayer to prepare himself spiritually to what he understood Jesus was calling him.
Remember, first and foremost King was a Christian pastor, and all he did was from an understanding of discipleship to Jesus given the specific gifts and talents God had entrusted to him.
One night in 1957, he was sitting alone in his kitchen, when he received a vicious telephone death threat.
Not knowing what else to do, he wept and began to pray to God.
While praying, he heard the Lord’s voice say to him, “stand up for righteousness, and stand up for justice, and I promise to never leave you alone.”
This what Dr. King often referred to, as his “mountaintop experience.”
Though under constant threat of violence, he said, “If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
You’re not going to be judged because you didn’t live the life of Martin Luther King.
But you will be judged by how you lived the life of Kathy, or Wilda, or Larry.
Psalm 139 concludes,
Search me, O God, and know my heart
which is an appeal that can only be made out of trust in a personal God, a God of mercy and steadfast love, a God who desires we each live abundant, full, meaningful lives.