There are a lot of poor people in Cincinnati. I was there for a wedding earlier this year. I was staying at a hotel in the city, so I wanted to be prepared in case I ran into any beggars. I went to a drug store where they sold gift cards to fast food restaurants and bought some. I think I got six $5 cards.
I figured they would last me the weekend, but I was wrong. There were people everywhere asking for money. I would walk up to them and try and engage them, and then hand them a gift card. Nothing fancy, but it left me feeling good — like I was a true disciple of Jesus.
I ran out of gift cards, but the city didn’t run out of beggars. Two men approached me at about midnight after the wedding. I was almost inside the lobby of my hotel before they stopped me. They were in their mid-fifties. They had run out of gas. Their car was around the corner. They asked for money so they could go and buy gas for their car. I told them I’d go upstairs and change out of my suit and then come back down and go with them to a gas station.
As it turns out they didn’t need gas or even own a car. They were just looking for money. They’d been there for a while, and they had gotten a dollar. We went out to dinner and talked. I learned that one of them lost his daughter to gang violence. The other, he looked like Forest Whitacker, had diabetes. He was divorced. He had married an Eastern European girl and there had been conflict with her family because he’s black.
They were nice, and they were normal. I realized how close their friendship was when the man with diabetes had to ask his friend to tie his shoelaces. For some reason he couldn’t bend over to complete the task.
We walked back to the hotel and I asked what they needed money for. They said that they need medical supplies and sneakers. The one who had diabetes had gotten his shoes for free and he had to wear a couple of socks to keep the shoes from falling off. He also said something about diabetes and blisters. I gave them $20. We prayed. I went up to my hotel room.
What I found interesting is how different I felt after this interaction from when I handed out gift cards. When I gave out $5 gift cards to Burger King, I felt godly, morally upright, and certain I was doing the right thing. But this time I felt unsure. I sat in my hotel room feeling like something was wrong. I took off my clothes because I felt dirty, even violated. I didn’t feel like I had done anything good. I just felt used. Even though these two guys were effusive in their gratitude and I’d like to think they told me the truth about what they planned to use the money for, I still felt gross. I wonder why.
When Jesus encourages us to give to everyone who asks of us, he gives us a reason but it’s not so that we will feel good. He says we should do it “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45) God gives us gifts whether we deserve it or not. I wonder how he feels? I wonder if he feels used every time his sun rises and the rain falls.