Monday, November 2, 2015

In the eyes of a beggar

We drive through the city of Jacksonville on our way to church in one of it's neighborhoods just north of center city. It's common on Sunday mornings to see homeless people begging for help on street corners. As you slow for a red light they make eye contact and hold up their signs: Help a Homeless Vet or something like that. Acknowledging their need and your resources to meet that need. Most of the time people drive by as I have, though occasionally some one stops as I have, too. Many of the streets we travel run by huge churches with worshippers heading to Sunday services. In those churches this Fall time of the year are Stewardship Campaigns. It is time to raise the money for next year's budget. Even though stewardship is a minor Biblical theme if it occurs at all, the sermons will mine the Scriptures for proper texts. One popular gospel story is called the Parable of the Talents. The  owner gives talents (literal talents or time or money are used interchangeably as if there is no difference) to servants, one gets a large amount, another a smaller amount and the last servant gets the smallest. The servants with the two larger amounts manage to increase their talents by the time the owner returns to check on them. They are good stewards of what the owner has given. The third servant just buried his in the back yard. He is a bad steward and is punished. The moral is clear, God gives us talents and he expects a return on investment. He is the owner and gives gifts for us to manage. We are stewards of all God gives to us. It is a bad thing to waste talents by burying them.

So the people on their way to church are learning to be good stewards of money and stuff and they get to practice it by tithing to the church. God will make up what they have given. He will bless them. However, what about the people on the street. They are poor stewards. They have wasted what God has given to them. They have resorted to begging. They could work, they can get welfare, there are city services that our taxes pay for that they can avail themselves of. We should not encourage them  with handouts. It will not do them any good in the long run (although it might put something in their bellies in the short run). Never give cash because they will just use it for booze or otherwise waste  it. Some of these beggars actually come into the city and make a good living off begging. You are a fool if you think you are helping them. It is hard to make eye contact and not feel like helping so look the other way and remember if you really want to help them you won't give.

Kelly Johnson has written a good book called The Fear of Begging. She tells about St Francis who began an order of beggars, mendicants they were called. Eventually the church put a stop to it. The church has had an uneasy history with money. Stewardship was one of the good ideas it came up with. Not everyone thought it was a good idea, though. Peter Maurin who was one of Dorothy Day's inspirations at the Catholic Worker had good reasons for begging. Like Francis he believed begging was a sacrament. He said: "people who are in need And not afraid to beg Give to people not in need The occasion to do good For goodness' sake. Modern society calls the beggar Bum and gives him the bum's rush. But the Greeks used to say That people in need Are the ambassadors of the gods."

Francis and Maurin called this voluntary poverty. They say it reminds us of the need for justice and charity. An encounter with beggars calls for reverence. We are in the presence of someone close to the heart of God. They read the parable of the talents a little differently. God gives freely and then waits, beggar like, on the fulfillment of that freedom which will be the return, the gift of love. The parable is not about how to make the best use of resources for the owner but how to give oneself - heart, mind, muscles, home to the beggar-Lord in love. Christ you see is the lowly servant who buries his talent as a prophetic act to confront an unjust ruler who gathers where he did not scatter and reaps where he did not sow. This truth telling servant is cast out, into beggary. That figure is like Christ who told the truth to the powerful in Jerusalem, suffered and died, becoming one of the least of these (Matt. 25).

It is a creative interpretation. I don't know if it's the correct one. I don't know if the traditional is either. I do know I am starting to look at beggars differently. I can look them in the eyes.

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