I don’t give money to beggars.
At least not usually.
I work in a good-sized city and used to work in another, and for 25 years I’ve been pretty good at walking past the random annoying drunk with his hand out.
I’ve seen the three-legged dog and the supposedly homeless veteran and the guy who needs bus fare to get somewhere.
I see panhandlers about the way I see dog droppings, as rude obstacles along the walk of life, to be veered around and walked away from quickly. Before he gets the second syllable out I shake my head and mutter, “No, buddy,” and hurry on.
Not always, but usually.
I’ve bought a few lunches over the years, and one time I felt something odd and called a guy back to give him a10-dollar bill.
But I don’t usually give money to beggars.
Which leaves me in a quandary of sorts. I know that giving money to panhandlers only makes things worse. It reinforces a negative behavior and the money probably all goes to drugs and alcohol anyway.
But a small set of verses from scripture haunts me.
“And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
“And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.”
I think sometimes about those verses and I try to ignore them.
Last week I was in the last days of a working vacation out west. On Friday afternoon, a bit after 4, when my shift was done, I left the radio station in a rented car and went out onto a main arterial with three lanes of heavy traffic in each direction.
I was thirsty and thought to get a Gatorade for myself and my son. He’s 28 and had been out of work for a couple of hours and we were going to drive through heavy commuter traffic south to the next county where the rest of the family was.
There are two convenience stores on this road, side by side, and for the 13 years I have visited that city I have always stopped at the second one. Never once have I stopped in the first one. Already on this trip I had stopped at the second one twice.
But this time I pulled into the first convenience store and went in to get the Gatorade. I like the cucumber and lime flavor, with the Spanish label, and he lately has been preferring the mango. And as I stood in front of the cooler and saw that they had both flavors I unexpectedly looked two coolers over and saw a sign that advertised two quart chocolate milks for $4.
And I got them.
And called my son from the car before I pulled out of the parking lot.
It turned out he had already left, that he was going to meet me, that we were driving separately.
So I put his chocolate milk on the passenger seat and opened mine and swallowed it down against the 90-degree heat.
Then I pulled out into traffic and headed toward the intersection that turned to the Interstate entrance.
A couple blocks before that the traffic had backed up with the afternoon commute and a long line of us waited to get past a red light that never let more than a third of the accumulated cars through at any one time.
I was in the right-hand lane, against the curb, preparatory to turning, the air conditioning blowing full blast in my face.
When I saw this young guy with his foot in a brace and with a crane walking up the curb with a sign asking for $1.50.
He was hustling right along, trying to get to as many cars as possible, and as he approached I felt the impulse to give him that other quart of chocolate milk.
So I rolled down the passenger window and as he saw it and reached my way I lifted the chocolate milk and leaned toward the window.
“Here, buddy,” I said.
“God bless you,” he said.
And he quickly moved back down the line of stopped cars, as quickly as he could, maximizing his chance to pick up dollars and change.
I listened to the radio newscast and pulled forward when the light was green and stopped when it was red and pulled ahead when it was green and stopped when it was red.
By then I was almost at the intersection and I noticed just back from the corner, even with where I had stopped, was a small tree casting a small circle of shade on a narrow strip of grass.
In the circle sat a sunburned pregnant woman and leaning against her was a little boy, maybe 4 years old, who was whimpering. His face was flushed and sweaty.
I’ve seen people sit there before. Sometimes Somalis waiting for the bus, sometimes Latino women waiting for their men to be dropped off from their day-labor jobs. On Friday it was this lady and the boy.
The light turned green and the brake lights flicked off and the first cars in the line began to move and the guy with the foot brace and the cane hobbled into view, quickly, arcing over onto the grass and leaning down to the woman.
To hand her the chocolate milk.
He continued on to position himself for the new line of cars and she looked at the lid, to make sure it was sealed. Then she shook it and opened it and handed it to the boy.
Who lifted it to his mouth and began gulping it down as the car in front of me rolled forward and I followed, turning right and merging with the line of cars making for the Interstate onramp.
That’s when I thought of those verses.
And unforeseeable consequences.
And thirsty little boys.
And a God who knows which ones like mango and which ones like chocolate.
And how we’re all beggars.