Are We Required to Give to Everyone Who Asks?

Dear Father Kerper: In the Gospels, Jesus seems to demand that we give money to every beggar who comes along. Should we take His words liter­ally? I’m not rich, and some of these people hit me for a donation whenever I walk down the street. I feel guilty when I don’t give them anything. Am I sinning by not responding to their appeal?

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In a wonderful way, your question reveals your own basic goodness. You have listened carefully to the words of Jesus, and you acknowledge that His words lay claim to your whole life, including your dealings with people in need. You also experience the tension between the Lord’s seemingly impossible demands and your own limited resources.

Let’s begin with the matter of taking the words of Jesus literally. The Gospels do indeed tell us that Jesus said things like: “Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again” (Luke 6:30) and “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (Luke 12:33).

Also, the requirement to assist the poor is powerfully reinforced by two of Jesus’ parables.

This article is from “A Priest Answers 27 Questions You Never Thought to Ask.” Click image to preview/order.

The first is the Lord’s depiction of the last judgment (Matt. 25:31–46). Here, Jesus states that the sole criterion for salvation or damnation is a person’s response to the hungry, the needy, the grieving, and so on. His words are sharp: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matt. 25:45).

The second is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19–31). Jesus paints a terrifying picture of a man condemned forever, apparently because of a single sin: neglect of one poor man in need.

These passages, especially when combined with numerous other texts in both testaments, clearly teach us that every believer must give freely to the needy. This is a nonnegotiable, although often overlooked, requirement of the Gospel. Why?

Jesus forcefully insists on almsgiving as a means of changing our vision of other people and ourselves. In fact, true conversion means changing one’s entire outlook on reality.

When Christians freely give alms to a stranger, they see the person, no matter how unattractive, as a living image of Christ. This happens through the mystery of the Incarnation, the unity of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. Because humanity has an essential unity, everyone — regardless of belief or moral condition — has some connection with Christ. The act of almsgiving, then, acknowledges and honors Christ within the other.

Almsgiving also changes our self-image by allowing us to see ourselves as “Godlike.” Perhaps this sounds blasphemous, but various biblical passages make the same point. Here’s just one: “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none on his” (see Matt. 5:48). To put it another way, by giving to the poor, especially to one person, we activate our God-given power to reflect God’s own generous love in the world. Now, to practical matters. You ask whether a Christian must literally follow the Lord’s command “to give to all who ask.”

Here we must move beyond specific situations to general patterns of behavior. Considering the biblical passages cited, especially Matthew 25 and the Lazarus parable, one must conclude that some sort of personal assistance to people in need is absolutely required. How one does this is another matter.

Some people — say, Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement — discern a special vocation from God to deal with poor and broken people in a face-to-face way. People like them do heroic work and manifest God’s generosity in an especially luminous way. But what about everyone else?

To find that answer for yourself, I would suggest that you examine your finances and personal time. Ask yourself these questions:

What portion of my income goes to charity? Here I would include not only contributions to groups that help the poor, but also financial gifts to needy neighbors, relatives, coworkers, and even strangers on the street. Almsgiving that comes entirely from one’s excess is nice, but true almsgiving should involve the diminishment and simplification of one’s own lifestyle. For example, could I skip my three-dollar latte by giving the money to a beggar?

Some people excuse themselves from helping panhandlers by arguing that the money will be misused. Please remember that the Lord requires charitable acts, not effective social work. A gift given in love has great value even when bestowed upon a con artist.

Do I spend time with people in need? For sure, Jesus speaks of material help, but His main interest is not economic. It’s personal. Every Christian needs a Laza­rus, a person who can claim his attention and concern, not just his money. Such a person may be right in front of you. As Saint Teresa of Calcutta once said to a woman who wanted to share in her work, “My dear friend, Calcutta is in your own living room.”

You also asked about sin. Some sins are evil actions. Other sins are failures to be what God has empowered us to be. Regarding personal assistance to the poor, we sin tragically by failing to see Christ in the other and, perhaps worse, by failing to allow God’s goodness to flow through us to the other.

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Kerper’s A Priest Answers 27 Questions You Never Thought to Askwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

Fr. Michael Kerper

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Father Michael Kerper is the pastor of Saint Patrick Parish in Nashua.

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  • I too have had the same thought when approached by someone “on the streets.” I haven’t always given and have used the misuse excuse many times.

    The article really drives home the point that we should give of our time, talents and treasure.

    The hard work is to actually deliver on those works of mercy.

  • Cecilia Riner

    I have had this same question and have asked several priests and was told that giving money to the pan handlers is not always the answer. It depends on the circumstances. My husband and I do give to the poor who ask for a handout but not always. When I can’t give money, I acknowledge them by looking them in the eye and saying hello. I introduce myself and ask their name and either ask them if I can pray with them or tell them I will be praying for them. If I meet them outside of church, I invite them inside for services or just to get warm. Sometimes they make known a need and I can suggest a place where the need can be filled. I can’t say that I’m faithful to my own advice every time but I recognize when God has been calling me to be more generous. It is a journey.

  • Charles Teachout

    Giving to beggars seems to be a difficult situation in our city, where there are appeals made at strategic freeway exits and/or intersections by “professional beggars” who hold a cardboard sign with a printed message. They may have a little animal or other people with them. Are they “real” or are they a part of a larger more cynical operation? Are they part of a “begging company” cynically calculating a certain percentage of people will donate to their profits? May the beggar keep the money, or is he or she working for a percentage of the take? What percentage is that? There is little question that these people who beg are “homeless types”, but are they part of a larger operation?
    Is there is a difference between these “corporate” types and “authentic beggars”? Is it pharisaical for us to say to people who approach us that they may have their needs taken care of at any number of outlets that offer food, money, clothing and shelter.
    It seems correct that the Lord obliges us to give to the poor, but must it be a percentage of our income to these charities? Perhaps “time and talent” should also be considered where we are longer on time and talent than on funds. we are sure the Lord allows us to be prudent with our choice of who we donate to. With this in mind, we arrive at a satisfactory decision. We do not donate indiscriminately, unless the situation is compelling. We take that “percentage” of our time, talent, or treasure and donate it to a charity we can trust. When we get it right, the Lord gives us something indefinable in return.
    An additional question arises: how much time, talent and treasure is “reasonable”? What is “obligatory” to our salvation? The question becomes legalistic. Is there an amount that is “good” but not “obligatory”? Can we ever truly arrive at a “good” amount that “satisfies” our debt to Jesus?

  • Sue

    I used to live in a small town in the countryside. I asked my Capuchin Priest what I should do for the beggars at the door. He said we should NOT give to them. To help the poor give at Church or an Organization that helps. Just hand them a note with the address and telephone number of places they could go to. There are places where they can sleep overnight. Many of them use their money for drugs and alcohol and never get out of their situation. They need help.

  • Gregory Thomas

    I had my eyes opened when I saw a woman at the WalMart exit with a sign that read something like, “Out of gas…Please help.” I felt sorry for her and told her to drive over to the gas station and I’d fill up her tank. She seems a bit skittish, but I insisted it’d be alright. As it turned out, it took less than 2 gallons to top off the tank. She also had a boyfriend waiting in the car. I guess a stranded woman is more persuasive.
    Our local police have also asked people NOT to give these panhandlers anything. It’s hard to do, but I generally drive past them now. Instead I send the money to a crippled family in Vietnam, or a young woman in Africa who takes in abandoned babies.

  • Whitebow

    Our church has been plagued by professional beggars in recent years. I am especially disturbed when the adults bring along young children and make them sit for hours so the parents can beg for money. I always felt torn when i didn’t give a panhandler money, and at the same time I resented the manipulative aspect of them begging outside a church and exploiting their children. One father approached my husband, who suggested that the man contact St. Vincent de Paul Society. The man then launched into a story about car repairs and how only cash would help him.

    Then we got a new priest and he took charge of this issue. I must say I was a bit shocked but I think he was sensible. He told our congregation that if we give these people money, they will continue to beg. They do not want help; they only want CASH. He even told a story of finding a woman begging at his previous church. He told her that if she didn’t leave, he’d call the police. “She pulled out a cell phone and 5 minutes later, a Mercedes came up and took her away.”

    Now I don’t want to be cynical, and we shouldn’t let doubt stop us from our obligation to help the poor. We all know that too many people truly are very poor even in this rich country. But our priest asked us to donate to St. Vincent de Paul Society, local soup kitchens, our local community services agency (the director is a parishioner), and other agencies that help the poor more effectively. So that’s what I do. When I turn down an individual panhandler, I go home and make a donation to a ministry that helps that population.

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