“Give to everyone who asks of you,” Jesus told his disciples (Luke 6:30). As clear a directive as that is, it gives me pause every time some panhandler on the streets asks me for a buck. What do I do? Will I be contributing to some addictive behavior? Will my money go to fast food or a quick high? At times I’ve taken to keeping a few energy bars in my bag so that I can offer something to eat, then I forget to stock up. What am I supposed to do, God? I wonder.
Last night on the subway platform a tall, handsome man in a scruffy wool hat approached me. “I’m Clarence,” he introduced himself. “I’m a veteran. Was in Parris Island back in 1977. In the summer I work on Long Island in the gardens out there. I love the outdoors and people are good to me. But I don’t work much in the wintertime…”
I felt myself stiffen against the request for change that was surely coming and wondered how much of a scam I was getting. Parris Island in ’77? Was he really old enough? And that part about gardening… Anyway, he smelled of beer.
The train arrived and we stepped on. Clarence took out his MetroCard and said, “I’m a little short of cash. I wonder if you could give me a dollar or two for my next subway ride.” The ideal thing would be to offer him another MetroCard, but I didn’t have an extra card. OK, God, here goes, I thought.
I fished in my pocket for money. Separated the $20 bills from the smaller bills and gave Clarence two bucks.
“Thank you, man,” he said. “That was nice of you.”
Then he did something that surprised me. A couple of kids were singing at the other end of the train and he took one of the bills I’d given him and gave it to them. He came back to me and said, “You look like a man who knows the Bible.” (Why do people say these things to me?) “You know how the Bible says, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ If you’re ever in trouble and I see you on the subway, I hope I can help you.”
It still might have been a scam, but I left Clarence with a renewed understanding of Jesus’ words. One reason you give directly to the needy is that instead of being vague suffering faces in a crowd, they become real people with names and stories (even if those stories might be elaborations). The “poor” become tall, handsome, too-thin Clarence wandering the subways. Someone to pray for. They might even quote Jesus right back at you.