St Thomas the Martyr, “Giving” “policy” also known as the "Non-giving non-policy"
In 2009, we were visited by one of our regular homeless people. They came into the church, were not challenged, and we could have lost quite alot of money as a result. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, and the honesty of the homeless person themselves, we did not. But it awoke us to the fact that we have no policy for dealing with homeless people, and/or those who come in asking for money. After discussion, we felt it was not appropriate that we had a policy such as the council or Social Services might have written, and what follows is the result of our working this issue thorugh.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” (John 3:16)
“All things come from you and of your own do we give you” (1 Chronicles 29:14).
“… when you give to the needy…” (Matthew 6:2 & 3. NB “when” not if)
“God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
God himself gave the ultimate gift: His Son, so we give in response. We give because we have received, and we give back to God what belongs to him. In Matthew Chapter 6, Jesus talks about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as essentials – they are unquestioned. Paul also discusses giving, particularly in 2 Corinthians (mainly chapter 8 continuing into chapter 9).
There is no doubt that God loves us to give, expects us to give; and expects us to do it wholeheartedly, so that all may benefit. Paul is the one who most explicitly talks about the results of giving. For Paul, the giving of money contributes to the building of the unity of the body of Christ, and the praise that the recipients give God is part of that unity, from which we all benefit. Because we are transformed by grace, we give; others experience our gift as transforming, and themselves offer up praise, which in turn is experienced as grace for us. Thus we give because we have received; and we experience grace as a result.
In addition, caring for those in need, or hospitality, is a fundamental quality of Christians, and is taken for granted throughout scripture. The sharing of what we have, our coats, and our supplies (food & drink), is mandatory. In Old Testament times there was a policy of leaving some of the crop in the field for the poor to glean (Leviticus 23:22 & elsewhere). With modern farming methods this has been lost. Some supermarkets and restaurants still practise it, usually unsung.
There is an acceptance in scripture that the poor will be with us. The parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is not critical of the rich man’s riches, but of his indifference to the plight of the poor man at his gate. He did not notice him. Big Issue sellers are reported as saying that it is not a refusal to buy or give that is painful, but being ignored. Jesus never ignored people. Peter and John had no money to give the beggar – but they did not ignore him and through the power of Christ gave him a better gift than he could have imagined – the ability to walk again.
When it comes to the context of giving, much of the discussion in the New Testament is about giving to the church, to other parts of the community (including those in far-off lands), rather than to the poor on our doorsteps. It is striking that no passage says that Jesus gave money to beggars. He healed beggars who were so because they were blind (John 9; Mark 10:46-52). But no mention is made of him giving, or telling others to give, to beggars. (No mention is made of him telling anyone not to give to beggars, either.)
He did advocate giving to the poor (Matthew 19:21). He would necessarily advocate that as it was a part of the Law of Moses and giving to charity is considered one of the most important mitzvot of Judaism. But giving to the poor is not the same as giving to beggars. The poor are those whose circumstances are less fortunate than the giver, but who are still trying to make a living through other means than begging. It is entirely possible that beggars were included among the poor, but many would consider that they should not be. The scriptures are not clear on this point.
Jesus wants us to be free. Free from addiction, free from want. The question to be asked is: “What will make this person free?” It may be that one packet of nappies, or sandwiches, or one bus ticket to enable them to get home for Christmas will give them more freedom than giving them the freedom to spend the money as they choose – and they spend the money on the next fix, and have to ask again for nappies, sandwiches, or bus tickets. It may be that giving them one small amount of money is the appropriate thing to do; but this should be the exception rather than the rule, because usually this does not give them life, or freedom.
Many modern-day charities work on the principle of “Give a person a fish you feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for life”. There the freedom issue is more apparent. If you teach them to fish, they are free of dependence on agencies for evermore.
One of the main problems with selective giving is that of judgment. That is, when we meet with a person and talk with them about their needs, their perceptions, we are inwardly asking ourselves the question: “Are they going to use my help wisely? That is, wisely according to my values? Or are they going to ‘waste’ it, that is, spend it on drugs or alcohol?” That is, we are judging people according to our values, as to whether or not they are worthy of our direct giving.
Paul is clear but challenging on this one: God gave everything for a set of no-hopers and chancers without any good reason - other than his character, or who he is - and giving is how you join in with his character and action and purposes for the world.
The vast majority of people who ask for money in central Newcastle need to be noticed. They need time more than they need money. The gift of time is precious, and costly.
Revd Catherine Lack & St Thomas' Action Group
16 February 2010