The Giving of Alms

I recently had a conversation over a cup of coffee with a friend of mine. The topic of giving alms to the homeless came up, and immediately progressed into a lively discussion about the ethics of such an act. He was firmly opposed to the giving of alms. Mind you, this was a young man who owned two cars and had attended a private university in Southern California. There was no lack of resources, so I was puzzled at his adamant refusal of what I thought was forgone conclusion amongst the Christian community.
The fact is I would be hard pressed to try to convince a person that giving alms to beggars was the right thing to do, providing they held no religion or ethic which suggested otherwise. How could you have a conversation with someone who held no concrete ethical convictions? I had no such intention. However, the person in question was a self-professed Christian. This placed him under a stricter standard of ethics than your average run-of-the-mill citizen. The Christian standard is what I applied for the framework of our dialogue.

As for a foundation on which to make claims besides Scripture, the following are statistics, provided by the Los Angeles Almanac, to help to portray the situation of the homeless population in Los Angeles County. My friend and I both reside in the area, so it is fitting to use it as a case study. The numbers are as follows:

There are an estimated 254,000 people homeless at any given time in LA Count

  • 20-43% are in families
  • 41% of adults were employed within the last year
  • 16-20% are currently employed
  •  25% are mentally ill
  •   20% are physically disabled
  • 48% graduated high school, 32% hold a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • 33-66% of single individuals have substance abuse problems

Two of the dominant themes that my friend brought up were thus: those who are begging are being lazy and therefore should not be enabled, and/or they were addicted to certain substances and giving money only fueled that addiction. The statistics above were intentionally chosen with these assertions in mind.

One of the consistent witnesses my friend brought forward in defense of not giving alms to beggars was that the Bible clearly states that those who work shall not eat.  I was familiar with that particular text, having heard it quoted from my mother numerous times in my youth. And while it is a valid argument, there are a much greater number of texts that speak of giving to the poor in the time of need. My mind immediately goes to the numerous verses that speak of giving alms as though you were lending to the Lord, and other passage along these lines. In a brief overview of both the Old and New Testament I found no less than 46 verses that directly mentioned giving to the “poor” or “needy”, in the context that it is the Christian’s duty to help nourish and support this demographic. There are surely more— it was merely a perfunctory search.

In contrast I found only three verses that mentioned that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat. Two of these were Proverbs, specifically worded to individuals, and those individuals indulging in the vice of sloth. Only one was framed in such a way as to potentially target a frame of thinking for a member of the Christian community. While there are more passages that would deal with laziness, nowhere can I find that the supposed laziness of a stranger should concern the giving of alms by one who would put their faith in the tenants of the Bible. The message of those Scriptures referencing that distasteful sin of sloth is directed at the individuals engaged in it, not at those who would give. It would make as much sense to say that we should not evangelize people, for they will simply not accept the call of Christ.

Now continuing to the other argument that was made in the course of our discussion: “If I give beggars money, they’re just going to use it to buy alcohol or drugs.” It is a statement I often hear from very respectable people. This seems like a valid argument until you begin to examine the facts of the matter.  The Bible is vague on this, leaving us without a reference per se. But there are other means of examining the dilemma. Making an estimate of the figures above, roughly 50% of those who are homeless and single have a substance abuse problem. Couple that with the figures from how many are in families and the number could be assumed to be slightly lower.

Mind you, this takes into account mild alcoholics as well as heroin users. There are those who suffer addiction stemming from mental deficiency, free will, or are constrained by genetic predisposition that they lack the strength or support to successfully combat. But while this is certainly a tragic figure–from a conservative estimate–it is not even a majority.

But this is beside the point. With the endless rationalization and relativism of the world, I am not suggesting one more theory along that style of reasoning. I am merely suggesting that one who is bound by the law of Christ is bound to give alms to those in need. I am not calling into account the character of those who refrain from giving alms. However do not let ourselves remark that we do not give because the poor are lazy, or addicted, or degenerate. The fact is they are needy and if we have abundance–and subscribe to a Christian ethic–we are to be their salve as best we can. And this could be a number of things: time, money, relationships, etc. Every person has a different ideal method for helping the needy, but I would agree with almost all of them to a certain level.

Christians should give. For anyone who believes that they are giving as unto the Lord, it is ironic to hear justification of why withholding alms is really helping a person. The God of the Christians does not ask for our advice on what to do with our tithes and offerings. He merely asks for them. This should not be interpreted as advocating the reckless distribution of money. All the same, I would be happy to see more folks reexamine their perspective on this particular Christian duty.