I recently heard a sermon where the pastor advocated giving to the beggar who asks you for money on the street.
It may be the right thing, morally, to give. But I pondered, based on my knowledge of beggars, that simply giving when you meet a beggar may not be the best thing to do. The world is too complicated for such a simple response.
I have gone to China where the beggars will cluster around tourist buses and try to get some money from the tourists. If money is given to even one of them, the rest, detecting your generosity, will gather around you and start begging from you as well. Which is why our tour guide advised against giving them any money.
I have also gone to some Southeast Asian countries where beggars are way more plenty than in Singapore. The beggars there are less aggressive, but tend to be either disabled or a mother holding a young baby. You will tend to feel more for these people than the able-bodied beggars in China, but there is one at every street corner. Do you give money to every single one of them?
Slumdog Millionaire depicts a syndicate in India which acquires child beggars. Some of these poor children are blinded by the syndicate so they will get more donations out of pity. These children will find it very difficult to break out of the poverty cycle as long as they are controlled by these syndicates. Some the children in the movie turned to a life of crime in order to do so. I imagine reality must not be far from fiction.
When Jesus was dining in Simon the Leper’s house and a woman poured an expensive jar of perfume on his head, the other guests muttered that the perfume was wasted and “could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And to this Jesus replied, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.”
Peter, Jesus’ disciple, also did not simply give money to the lame beggar at the temple when he asked for it. Instead, he healed him in the power of Jesus’s name. If we could cure every beggar we met of all his problems, how good that would be!
We may be in a more prosperous position than these people. But perhaps giving alone is not enough, and only cures the symptoms of poverty fleetingly. Do we give all we have, until we ourselves are poor? Poverty is a disease that must be cured at the root. But even the root itself is difficult to target, as it has many factors. There as a comic in which Superman himself tried to end world poverty, but even he couldn’t do it.
Back to the main question: If we see a beggar, do we give?
I personally believe that we should be allowed to exercise some discernment when we choose to give. I do not want to reward laziness and give money to people who are fully able-bodied and could easily find a job with manual labour, or even selling tissue paper (something that many poor elderly or disabled do in Singapore, which I support).
And for the disabled, the legless sitting every few metres from each other in a Thailand street? Who do we give to? None, one, or all? Perhaps if there was an NGO or charity that looked out for these people, who could set up homes for them and also find employment or means of income for the more enabled, we could support such an organisation with our donations and volunteerism, and this is how we give.
The same pastor also suggested buying a meal for the beggar, even sitting with him and befriending him. But he pointed out, how many of us would be willing to do this, to be seen with a dirty, bedraggled, unkempt man who may cling to you as a result of your generosity? Are we able to love him the way Jesus loved lepers? It is a noble gesture, one that few, not even myself, would easily dare to undertake.
We definitely must do something to help the world’s poor. But it can’t just be by dropping coins into a hat. I wish it were that simple.