I just miss the green light at the intersection turning into the mall where I am scheduled to take my first one-on-one class with an Expert at the Apple Store. I am a recent Macbook convert and need a little training.
As I roll to a stop the half-eaten chocolate chip cookie I had for lunch slides off the passenger seat. There's a homeless man on the median strip with a cardboard sign in his hands. He is shabbily dressed, missing some teeth, and walks with a bad limp. As I grab the fallen cookie it occurs to me that I could open my window and give it to him, but I am just ahead of his line of sight so I'd have to yell at him to get his attention. Although I typically ignore (with some guilt) the people who beg in the middle of the street, I feel an extra measure of pity for this man. He looks to be older than middle age (although it can be hard to tell sometimes when life has been cruel to a person) and his limp adds to what I perceive as vulnerability.
I have mixed emotions about giving hand-outs to people begging. On the one hand, doesn't it encourage them to continue begging if they are successful? I feel like a snob, but I can't say that I agree that begging is a solution to a really horrible problem. And there is no way to know what they really spend their "donated" money on: is it food or drink or drugs or ...? If I give them money I might just be helping to feed a bad habit, but then again, who am I to judge? If they really need food, why don't they go down to the local food bank or homeless shelter, places my husband and I donate both money and goods to throughout the year. Then there's the cynic in me that wonders if the person begging really needs a hand-out in the first place. Is it possible that this is just the easiest way to make a buck when they could earn an honest day's wages if they put their mind to it? On the other hand (I seem to have a lot of hands), these days with so many people out of work and hurting financially, it's harder to convince myself that getting a job is a realistic option for some, and I know that even food banks and shelters are struggling to keep up with the demand for their services. But is participating in the ever-growing popularity of begging the answer? Obviously, I am of two minds about this.
The light stays red as I sit there holding the cookie, giving me time to consider. It's only a half-eaten cookie, but it represents a whole lot more than that to me. It would be a reversal of my earlier decision about not responding to a panhandler on the street. And what if a half-eaten cookie offended him, like is that the best I can do? But why would I care - he's begging afterall. Then again, it might be the nicest treat he enjoys that day. What if the light turns green as I'm trying to get his attention and the driver in the car behind me gets frustrated by the delay and starts honking, making me feel foolish. Dear God, forgive me, but these are the thoughts racing through my head.
Finally the light turns green and I'm off the hook. I put the cookie back on the seat and drive on, putting the whole scene out of my mind as I deal with inattentive drivers ahead of me in the parking lot.
After my class driving home I feel hungry and reach for the cookie. I take a bite and remember then that I almost gave it away. I feel badly that I didn't. What if that man was an angel, sent from God to test me? If so, I failed miserably. I let my cynicism and logical thinking get in the way of my compassion.
But what if he was just an ordinary man? There's a verse in the Bible, Matthew 25:40, that says, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' And the converse, in verse 45, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' If he was an ordinary man and not an angel, I still failed miserably, and for the same reasons.