After my parents had divorced—I guess I was around eleven years old—my mom and I lived in a car for a while. The little money we had left from her last paycheck had dwindled down to twelve cents.
One day we hadn’t eaten by suppertime, and we couldn’t afford to buy anything. So, my mom went to the back door of a restaurant and asked for some food. She came back with half a loaf of bread and a mostly full jar of peanut butter.
I don’t remember eating. We surely did. We were both hungry. And I don’t remember how my mom felt about any of it. She wasn’t a proud woman, but she had always worked hard for a living. In fact, she got back to work as soon as she could find a job and literally worked until the very day she died. Her life’s purpose was to provide for me. It had to have been demoralizing for her to admit to me that she couldn’t buy food and humiliating for her to beg strangers for a handout.
We don’t use the term “beggar” much these days. It seems harsh and condescending to our ears. The word “panhandling” has taken its place in some quarters, but that word’s connotation is no less pejorative. People ask for assistance. In urban areas, they sometimes position themselves near busy doorways or metro stations. People seeking assistance frequently find their way to the doors of our churches.
Some of these people are homeless. They’ve lost a job or succumbed to addiction or, due to prolonged illness, have fallen hopelessly behind on the bills. A number of our homeless neighbors are mentally ill.
Others seeking assistance have hit a temporary rough spot and just need a little help to get back on their feet. There are a few who have always lived on welfare and have never learned a different way to get by in the world. Fewer still are just stinkers looking to take advantage of naive generosity.
Giving alms is a longstanding Christian practice. Jesus emphasizes it. The Hebrew Scriptures urge it. We see ourselves as those who have plenty. From our abundance, we hear God calling us to be merciful to those who suffer deprivation.
And yet, when we begin to see ourselves as benefactors, we have completely missed the point.
While Jesus wants us to continually stretch the limits of our generosity, he warns us to steer clear of thinking of ourselves as benefactors. Instead, he teaches us to be beggars at our very core.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
The Greek word used for “poor” in this translation means “beggar” in different contexts. So, here’s what Jesus is saying: Blessed are the spiritual beggars, for they are filled with God’s presence. Their emptiness makes room for God to pour himself into their lives. Holy people—saints—are God-saturated people because they have gotten themselves out of the way.
When spiritual beggars give, they give from the overflow. God’s grace and tender mercy spills out from them because they do not seek to retain for themselves what has been freely given to them.
And crucially, their giving is always a reciprocal sharing among equals. Spiritual beggars pour out and drink in from each other the mercies of God that each brings to the other. There is no condescension.
By contrast, benefactors condescend when they give. Benefactors have spent their lives accumulating under the false impression that we are all entitled to keep as our own whatever we have gathered. Benefactors let go of a portion of their stockpiles to less fortunate people, with the emphasis on less.
Mind you, this is frequently an unwitting attitude and the giving is done with a genuine desire to help. And yet, when we understand ourselves as benefactors, we have forgotten that all that we have is a divine gift. And crucially, we will entirely miss the truth that we are entering into partnership with a fellow beggar.
Outreach programs frequently function on a benefactor-recipient model. Some congregations send checks, and such generosity is good. But giving money can also keep us at a distance from the recipient.
Mission trips to impoverished locations bring us face to face with others. And yet, we can build homes or offer medical aid or run a Vacation Bible School for a short period without forming an equal, reciprocal partnership to engage God’s mission.
We can drive to another part of town to feed or clothe or even shelter strangers without genuinely making them our neighbor and joining them as partners in God’s mission.
Benefactors keep a distance.
Spiritual beggars meet neighbors and form partnerships.
The poor in spirit are spiritual beggars. They may in fact be beggars for food or money or prescription medicines or utility payments. But we can assume this physical posture whether or not we are in physical want. And to be clear, being materially poor does not guarantee a posture of spiritual poverty.
Spiritual beggars rely upon God for grace. We come with nothing. We need everything.
Spending time in personal devotions, worshipping with the gathered community, doing works of mercy, pursuing social justice, and living with moral integrity do mark people as God’s beloved. As blessed.
But God’s love has been neither earned nor coerced by any of this. The divine love is given freely. Those who receive it freely bear its visible mark. They inherit the Kingdom of God. Saints are God-saturated beggars. Paradoxically, these beggars have the most to give.
You lead me to deep thinking and make me squirm, wondering who am I in God's eyes, the beggar or the benefactor. I know this is your job, but sometimes you do it too well.
Margaret, thank you for thinking, and squirming, and wondering along with me.
Bishop Jake, I had just posted this last week that the original meaning of “charity” has been mongrelized in modern usage, and that people see it as representing pity or handouts, so in I Corinthians the popular thing has been to replace it with “love”… but that misses the point, which is that charity is more than just love, it is love in action.
Ro, it is a shame that a once so powerful word now has such a condescending connotation.