More about the Christian life

Beggars on the Street Corner

     Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”
     Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
     He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
     Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
     “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’”
—Matthew 15:10-20, NIV

I recently read a scholar who said that the Pharisees in the first century were primarily a religious dinner club, and in many respects he is right. For most of the religious regulations that they observed had to do with the acquisition, preparation, and consumption of food. These kosher laws regulate which foods may be eaten, how the food must be prepared, whether certain foods can be combined with each other, and even the people who are allowed to be present at the meal. All these things determine whether the food is kosher, and if the food is not kosher, then neither is the person eating it.

The Pharisees, as we read throughout the gospels, would not take a meal in the presence of a gentile or even a non-Pharisaic Jew—which should give us pause for thought when we read all those stories about things Jesus said at dinner parties thrown by Pharisees. Jesus speaks, not with the shrill voice of one who protests from without, but with the reasoned voice of one who reforms from within. But that is a topic for another day.

Here is the principle behind the kosher laws: If you take a shower, dress in formal clothes, then set out to change a tire, you learn very quickly what even small children know that dirt is contagious but cleanliness is not. When clean hands come in contact with a dirty tire, the hands become dirty, the tire does not become clean. In most households, even the greatest and most expensive delicacy, when dropped upon the floor, instantly transforms itself into dog food. This is also how the Jewish kosher laws work. Kosher food that comes into contact with something that is unclean becomes unclean itself, and the people who eat unclean food or who eat even kosher food among unclean companions become unclean themselves.

However true this may be in matters of sanitation, Jesus tells us the opposite is true in matters of holiness, for otherwise evil would be stronger than good, and if evil is stronger, evil will eventually prevail, and there is not point in affirming or practicing what is good. Dirt may pollute what is clean, but holiness sanctifies what is unholy. These principles work in opposite directions, for kosher laws concern what food goes into a person’s stomach, but holiness concerns what deeds come out of a person’s heart. Even if one’s personal holiness leads to the observance of kosher laws, observing kosher laws does not lead to holiness. For our thoughts and deeds make us holy, not our eating and drinking.

You may know people who think themselves righteous because liquor has never passed their lips. They think themselves righteous, but they are not nearly as famous for their virtue as Mother Teresa is for hers. This is why: What makes us unclean is not what goes into our stomach, but what comes out of our heart. When it comes to pleasing God, it is not what goes in that matters, it’s what comes out that counts.

So, seeking to find out what should come out of us, to please God, we turn to an earlier passage in Matthew, where Jesus says:

     You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
—Matthew 5:38-42, NIV

Some of what Jesus says in this passage deals with our behavior toward people who have more power than we do, such as those who hurt us, or steal from us, or force us to do things we would rather not do. And the rest of what He says deals with our behavior toward people who have less power than we do, such as those who beg from us or seek to borrow our property. Today we explore the second situation.

A neighbor asks to borrow my lawnmower, but he has not returned my rake, my hoe, or my weed eater. I stop for a traffic light, and a rumpled, dirty, ugly man with a crudely lettered sign made of torn cardboard approaches me with a plastic cup. The sign says, “I need food,” but his breath smells of alcohol. If I am like most people, I refuse to loan to my neighbor, because he is untrustworthy, and I refuse to give to the beggar, because I feel he will abuse my gift. When I see a beggar, I size him up, I decide what led him to his predicament, I determine the likelihood that he will abuse our gift, and I give accordingly.

So I ask myself, did any beggars pass my criteria? Do I invariably come to the conclusion that the best way to help the man is not to help him at all? If I have never found a beggar who deserved my charity, then maybe it wasn’t the beggar who was not worthy enough to receive it, but I who was not righteous enough to give it. Perhaps I should think about this. If Jesus measures my righteousness by what comes out of my heart, and all that comes out of my heart is tough love at best and stinginess at worst, what will be His attitude toward me? For when it comes to pleasing God, it is not what goes into my thinking that matters, it’s what comes out of my heart that counts.

Now I may protest that in this case, if I give the money to the beggar, he will use it for some evil purpose. But this excuse holds no water, and I will show you why.

There are two moral situations here, not one. The first is whether I help a person in apparent need, and the second is whether my beneficiary uses that help properly. When I fail to give to the beggar, because I speculate that he will misuse my gift, I am making his moral judgment for him. I am not permitting him to choose good or reject evil, I am choosing it for him. I am also choosing it for him blindly, because I do not in fact know the consequence of my decision! So on sheer speculation I am making two moral decisions, not one. I’ve made a decision about giving money to a beggar, and I’ve made a decision about how he can use it. That means that the consequence is my responsibility, not his, because I had the choice and he did not. Whatever happens to him after I commandeered his fate, Jesus will extract from my soul. For you see, when it comes to pleasing God, it is not what factors go into my decision that matters, it’s what comes out of my heart that counts.

My moral problem is whether to help a beggar in apparent need, without casting aspersion on him, and without speculating about the chain of events that will ensue. What if I am mistaken, and the man does not drink alcohol, but simply has bad breath from days without a toothbrush? What if the man is so severely alienated from society by his distress that the only social skill that remains is begging? What if giving this man a handout is the best way to show him that some people still care about him, and not everyone treats him like a bum? What if I am the last straw for him, what if my failure to reach out causes something to snap within him, and leads him to a fortified withdrawal, a permanent vagrancy, to violence, or even to suicide? What if my kind act and kind words could have helped him climb a hard and arduous ascent out of his predicament, but their absence sealed his fate? Do I wish to have that on my spiritual résumé when I appear before Jesus on that Last Day?

Notice now in the passage that I just read, Jesus said: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. Give to everyone who begs from you.” I left a few words out of the middle to show you that Jesus commands me to give to those who beg or borrow even when they are evildoers! He commands me to give money to the beggar who will misuse it, and to lend to the borrower who will not return it! Surely I need no commandment to give to those who are worthy or to loan to those who are scrupulous, why would Jesus bother to command me to do something I am prone to do anyway? So when I fail to give or to loan, on the flimsy excuse that the recipient is not worthy, I am not spiritual or righteous or even prudent, I am unspiritual and unrighteous and even foolish, because I have done the opposite of what Jesus commanded me to do!

Jesus says that it’s what comes out of our heart that defiles us. And we only have to look around us to see that it is true. Certainly you have noticed that hateful people have hate in their hearts. It overflows into their deeds, so that they hate their enemies; they are skeptical of people they have not even met, they distrust their neighbors, they are suspicious of their friends, they cannot stand loving people, and they secretly despise themselves. I could name—but I will not, because you can think of them yourself—any number of dictators, despots, and mass murders whose hearts are backed-up sewers, overflowing with hate, defiling themselves, their families, and even entire nations. Loving people, on the other hand, have love in their hearts. It overflows into their deeds, so that they love their enemies, they presume the best of people they have not met, they trust their neighbors, they give their friends the benefit of the doubt, they are at peace with themselves, and they even love the hateful people who cannot love themselves! These people remain beloved in our memories because the love that sprang from their hearts made them holy, transforming them, and lifting them up, and all the people around them.

So we see that love does not arise out of the quality of the thing that is loved but out of the quality of the soul that loves. Therefore we should strive to be loving people, whose love rises up from within to reach to all people, not just to the lovable and the deserving, but the unlovable and the undeserving as well. If we truly belong to the body of Jesus Christ, we will do in the world the things His body does in Scripture. If we love the unworthy, the undeserving, the unlovable, and yes, even people whose intentions are evil, we show ourselves as truly belonging to the One who died on the cross to rescue reprobates such as us. If it did not matter to Jesus whether we were worthy of our salvation, why should it matter to us if the rumpled man on the street corner is worthy of our five-dollar bill?

Now someone might say, “I need that money! If I gave to all the bums I meet, I wouldn’t have anything for myself or my family!” If we were worldly people, that would be very shrewd, because the present moment is all that worldly people have. If they give five dollars to a stranger, they are out five bucks; they are less for the experience. But if we are people of faith, who rely on Jesus to supply our needs, if we regard Him as the source of all our sustenance, then the money we have in our pockets comes from Him. It is not our property, but His providence; it was not given to us so that we could possess it, but so that we would have an opportunity to prove that we really are good stewards of His bounty. How can we sit here and proclaim Jesus as Lord, Jesus as the source of all our blessings, then act as though He were not? How can we proclaim that Jesus meets all our needs and then act as if He would punish us for obeying His commands?

Once I sat as the passenger in a car in heavy traffic at a traffic light near Springfield Mall, and on the sidewalk next to me there was a young man, walking away from me, so that I could only see the sign on his back begging for money. I noticed he was a strong young man, neat in appearance, and I decided that he could easily get an entry-level job somewhere, so I did not give him money. The young man turned to walk in the other direction, this time facing me, and I was instantly convicted of my sin. I regretted my presumptuous judgment and the hardness of my heart. I grabbed for my wallet, but it was too late—just then the traffic light turned green and the driver started to speed away.

I sobbed. I cried openly. I greatly regretted my inaction. I’m not sure what made me cry—was it the hardness of my heart, the poverty of my soul, the presumptuousness of my Pharisaic judgment? Or was it the fact that the young man had no arms?

So I warn you that you judge people at your own risk. It bothers me to this day! I can’t get that young man out of my mind, no matter how many times I repent. I tell you the truth, it is better to be ripped off by a panhandler than to fail Jesus’ little ones, when they need you.

I challenge you to try obedience, to give freely to people in need, and to find out for yourself if you are truly injured by the loss of such a small sum of money. I am not telling you that God will pay you back; I am not telling you that you will receive twice as much money as you give out; I am not promising you riches or wealth or prosperity or any form of Christian magic. I am promising you only that if you truly seek to follow Jesus, you will not miss that money and that you will prefer the righteousness of giving it away to the worldliness of keeping it in your pocket.

If you would be a true disciple of Jesus, you aspire to please Him in every way. You aspire not to riches, or fame, or popularity, but to sainthood.

Sainthood is not the skill of identifying hateful people and hating them proportionately, but the skill of loving those who do not deserve it. Jesus, whom we esteem the greatest of all people, whom we worship as our God incarnate, surrendered His prerogatives of deity to become incarnate as a man, born of a woman, to suffer the indignity of death upon the cross—not to mention potty training—to rescue us when we did not deserve it. If Jesus gave you a handout when you did not deserve it, then who are you to deny a handout to a disheveled bum who does not deserve it?

But why, you ask, are we concerned with such a little matter? What does a bum here or there matter when there are greater concerns in this world? We have the problems of ethnic strife, famine, and disease, not only in the third world, but in our own nation as well. It isn’t a matter of choosing between the two. Jesus said that whoever is faithful in small matters is faithful in greater matters as well. He does not say that one matters more than the other, only that we reveal our true character in the small and immediate moral choices we make each day. In the Kingdom of God, we all start at the bottom, with the smaller things and work up to the greater things. For the person who gives to the beggar on the street corner will certainly seek ways of helping the distant, suffering masses as well.

Jesus says:

      Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
—Matthew 6:19-21, NIV

No one on their deathbed ever regretted not spending more time at the office. No one at the point of death regrets not having been worldlier. Those who are at the end of their lives, who see the angels approaching as the room goes dim, invariably wish they had laid up better treasures in heaven. They do not worry about what happened to the five-dollar bill they lost fifteen years before. They know that they were not made unclean by what went into their bodies, or into their wallets, but by what came out of their hearts.

I have often said that life is the process of making plans into memories. When you are young, you have many plans and few memories, when you are old, you have fewer plans and many more memories, then finally at the end there are no plans at all, just memories. So I exhort you now, while there is time, to plan for good memories, to store up treasures for yourself in heaven, by serving the beggars whom Jesus sent as your teachers, so that when that inevitable day arrives, the angels will exalt as you ascend. And Jesus will greet you, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”