I sometimes give money or food to homeless people. I do not do it enough, and I do not talk about it (Matt. 6:1-4). But I need to tell you about something that happened yesterday. What could have been an act of charity became an act of robbery, and it was my fault. The desert fathers say that when you are robbed, if you can forgive the thief and relinquish your sense of ownership over what you gave, then you turn it into an act of charity. Yesterday, the opposite happened.
It was a Sunday morning. Normally I would be in church, but a few times a year my job requires my weekends. I had spent the night at the Scarritt-Bennett conference center because I am the educational consultant for our WAVU program, and I woke up with a bad case of heartburn. After searching my bag and asking around, I decided, after breakfast, to run by the Vanderbilt commissary and pick up a small roll of Tums on my way to the Wyatt Center. Only, on what seemed like a whim, I changed directions. I decided to go to the local CVS instead. It was only a bit more out of my way, but I could probably save a couple of bucks.
On my way in, a lady kept staring at me. I was wearing my cowboy hat. So that was nothing unusual. I bought my antacids and was gnawing open the plastic wrapping, anxious for sweet relief, when the woman I had noticed before approached me. I knew what was happening. I was going to be asked for money.
“Lucky I don’t have any cash,” I thought. I am ashamed of that thought. But worse sentiments were to follow. Stephanie is still on “probationary” status at her new job. She has not been there for very long, and we are still recovering from the months and months of unemployment. I was feeling particularly selfish that morning.
“Please sir,” she said, with a thick Indian accent. “I need twenty dollars to buy groceries at the Kroger. I have no money.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have any cash.”
“There is an ATM inside.”
The gall! That was what I thought. She had me there. I was pretty sure I still had $20 in my checking account. I began to think up excuses or to think about ways to negotiate. Maybe I could give her a few bucks. Or maybe I could offer to take her into the CVS and buy her something small. I dismissed that idea because I realized that the CVS was more expensive, and it would be harder to say no to a person who I was taking on a shopping trip. But my thoughts were interrupted with her next words.
“Please, sir! In Jesus’ name. In Jesus’ name.”
That was harder to argue with. I knew my Bible, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48). A child in Jesus’ day was not necessarily one who was innocent. A child was dispensable. A child had little worth. Children were important. They inherited property and provided labor to help sustain the family, but individual children did not matter all that much. That is not to say that parents did not love their little ones, but they did not think of childhood as anything special. Child mortality was high when Jesus said those words. A child was someone who was fragile, much like the woman in front of me. But those thoughts only came to me as vague sentiments of things that I had read and thought. Mostly, the only thing I thought was, “Shit!” Pardon the expletive, but that is me being honest. She had me, and I was pissed. So I pulled out my phone, checked my balance, transferred a bit of money because the antacids had brought my account balance down to $17, and got $20 from inside.
This was an opportunity for ministry. It was an opportunity for me to connect with someone scripture tells me is the face of Christ asking for my charity. Instead I came out of the store and gave her the money, making a special effort not to make physical contact with her. She was, in my pharisaical thinking, unclean. She thanked me and told me, “God bless.” I mumbled something back and walked away.
I know a lot of people at this point will start to make excuses for why what I did was really okay, or maybe they will tell me that I should not have given her money because most homeless people are homeless because they have vices. The $20 will probably be spent on drugs or something. What a load of crap! Homeless people are not homeless because they have vices. They have vices because they are homeless. That is not entirely true, but it is certainly more true than blaming the poor for their poverty. Causality is harder to pin down the poorer someone is. Not more than a few weeks ago, I found myself wondering how I was going to be able to afford a gallon of milk and the gas that it would take to get to the store. This woman needed groceries, and I believed her. I did not believe her 100%. Sure. Maybe she was going to buy booze. But that is not how charity works. That is called paternalism. God does not present us with opportunities to give in order that we may control other people’s lives. People ask us, and we give to them, because in so doing, we give unto Christ (Matt. 25:31-46).
But I was not giving yesterday. I was robbed, and like I said, it was my fault. That is why I am telling you about this act of so-called “charity.” This is an act of confession. Faith orders otherwise random events. So if I were to construct a narrative out of yesterday’s events, here is what I would say. God gave me heartburn. Bad heartburn! None of our other staff had antacids. Nor were there any in the first aid kits. I had to buy some. Those who know me know that I do not like buying things, especially when I am busy. But I was able to leave breakfast a bit early because the morning had been uncharacteristically smooth. The Spirit, or maybe my guardian angel, pushed me off course, away from the Vanderbilt commissary, toward the CVS, where there was a woman waiting for someone to give her money to buy groceries for herself and maybe her kids.
That person was me. But I was not happy about it. I was resentful. I still am, a little. I know this is wrong. But I also know that God sometimes forces acts of righteousness out of us whether we want it or not. That woman needed money, and God made sure she got it. In this story, I am not a good person, but God will sometimes use heard-hearted people like me to make good things happen anyway.
Let me say this, because I know some of you. Some might be tempted to think to yourselves, “Well I will show David that no act of righteousness goes unrewarded.” Look, you are nice. But I am not asking you to send me a twenty dollar bill in the mail. I am trying to get over my resentment and my selfishness right now. I am trying to turn this act of theft into the act of charity it needs to be. I doubt I will succeed. But here is one thing I know: A gift is only a gift if you do not get something back. Otherwise, it is just a round-about-way of making a purchase. Alms are not an investment. Alms are alms.
Yesterday, what I should have done was talk to the woman a bit more. I should have touched her arm. I should have looked her in the eye and asked her to tell me more about her situation. I should have prayed with her. I should not have tossed a crumpled up $20 bill into her hand and walked away pissed at her for asking me for so much and telling me how I could get it, pissed at her for invoking the name of Jesus, and pissed at myself for being pissed at her. I do not believe motives are all that important because most of us have mixed motives. We rarely ever give with purity of heart. Ever. Our hearts are never pure, but that is okay. We try to be good people, and the trying is what matters most (and yes, I just ripped that off from a recent episode of Doctor Who). But yesterday was more than an opportunity for me to give charity. It was an opportunity for me to connect with a child of God, and I blew it. Lord have mercy.