The man approached me as I got out of my car at a shopping center.
“Hey,” he addressed me. “I’m really hungry and I won’t be able to get any food until tonight. Could you help me out?”
So many conflicting thoughts raced through my mind: I won’t give him money to spend on drugs or alcohol. But didn’t Jesus say to help the poor? Didn’t Jesus tell us in the parable of the sheep and the goats that when we feed the poor that it is as if we are feeding him? (Matthew 25)
And doesn’t Hebrews 13:2 tell us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
Panhandlers stand at busy intersections in most cities these days, a variety of signs held to prompt donations. “This could be you” warns a long lost sibling of the Duck Dynasty crew. “Hungry and traveling. Anything helps,” is common in a “I sure hope I’m not getting jaded and immune to the plight of the lost, hungry, and homeless people in my midst” sort of way. “I just need a beer” reads a sign from a guy going for humor AND sympathy.
We’re aware that money given could be used in destructive ways. We’re warned not every sign holding panhandler is homeless or needy. I generally salve my conscience by donating to my town’s local shelter, appropriately named “The Jesus Center.”
But on this particular day, I chose to get more personally involved.
I wish I could say that the experience left me with good feelings, fed my soul, or gave me joy. But it didn’t.
Opting not to give this guy money that could be used in shady ways, I quickly scanned the shops lining the shopping center. About 50 yards away was a Subway restaurant.
“I won’t give you money,” I began, “But I’ll buy you a sandwich.”
“Okay,” he quickly agreed.
As we walked towards the restaurant, a woman standing by her car about 15 yards from us called out, “Don’t help him. He’s lazy.”
The young man started talking quickly, trying to drown out her words.
“I just asked her for some money and she didn’t want to give it to me.”
Unfortunately, he kept talking. He started criticizing her new car. And denigrated her for being stingy. His negativity began to rain on my benevolence.
I’m pretty sure no one gave her that car. Likely she had to work for what she has. I defended her briefly.
She drove by slowly and shot off another warning, “Look at him. He’s fat. He doesn’t need any food.”
His defensiveness and sense of entitlement soured my entertaining angels buzz.
“You are acting exactly like her when you criticize her like that,” I declared, finally putting a momentary stop to his complaints.
In an effort to change the subject, I asked him if he knew about The Jesus Center and the meals they provided.
His response was another tirade. He didn’t like the quality of the food or the way the charity is run. He claimed the employees steal all the best food for themselves. The food made him so sick he could no longer eat there. Ulcers. Going to lose internal body parts.
At Subway he ordered a sandwich with the works, clearly not a meal suited for someone on the verge of pancreatitis or being sick from eating salty or poor quality food. I began to feel stupid. Taken advantage of. Hoodwinked.
I quickly paid for his sandwich, tossed off a goodbye, received no thanks, and fled. Questioning myself. Did I do the right thing? Did I say yes to God here or not?
No warm fuzzies encouraged me. No choirs of angels sang from heaven. I was confused and conflicted.
It was just a sandwich. But I thought I said, “Yes to God” and didn’t get what I expected.
It wasn’t the first time either. When we say yes to God and don’t get the outcome we expect it can shake our faith because sometimes we expect our faith to have a sort of karmic reward system.
So what happens when we don’t get what we bargain for? When the hungry guy isn’t grateful and doesn’t want to hear about the faith I tried feebly to share with him. Sometimes we aren’t healed or the job offer doesn’t materialize. Relationships are sometimes destroyed and not redeemed in spite of desperate prayers. Or, a big yes to God is met with…silence. Waiting. No immediate second step.
In these times, I have had to choose to cling to God’s promises in spite of my fear or confusion. He is not a God who lies or changes his mind. He has promised to be with me and guide me. Whatever the sandwich guy does.
“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind.” Psalm 11:4