Today as I exited a building in downtown Portland, Oregon, I was confronted by a young woman sitting cross-legged on a street corner holding a sign. Well, I shouldn’t say “confronted”, perhaps, because she never said a word to me. In fact, our eyes never really met. She just sat there, staring at the concrete sidewalk, holding a sign which said “Please help. Evicted from my apartment. Need someplace to stay with my cat”. After glancing at her sign I walked away, going about my business. I couldn’t quit thinking about her though, and it is that conflict which I propose to share with you, dear reader.
I do not know this woman from Eve. I have no idea if she has in fact been evicted from her residence. I don’t know if she even has a cat. If she does, the cat was mercifully not with her to be used as a prop. If I or anyone else was to give her money there is no guarantee whatsoever that it would be used to correct the misfortune which she claimed to have suffered. There was no rational reason at all why i should give that woman a second thought.
Which is why it makes it strange that she was all that I could think about for the next several minutes. To begin with, I thought that if she really was in tight financial straights she should call upon her family for relief, as I would do. I then remembered that many people do not have even remotely functional families, and that this is not an option for everyone. I also thought that this woman had arrived at her situation by making bad choices and that the answer, instead of sitting on a street corner begging, is to start making good choices. In that context, giving her money only put a band aid on her wound and enabled her to continue making bad choices. The full weight of how dreadfully judgemental that thought was had me cringing within a moment and lamenting that I had ever thought it. I can decide whether or not to give a beggar a few bucks without loading shame on them and guilt on myself.
I then thought about my Christian duty to care for the poor. Jesus spent a great deal more of His time with the poor than with any other group according to the gospels, and I want to act like Jesus as much as my bent, fallen self can. In the first century however the people of the town and even in Jerusalem knew the beggars personally and could vouch for their stories, and so guesswork was removed as to who was truly needy and who was a slacker. We have no teaching from Jesus which says ‘render unto the beggar whether she is a slacker or not”, but we do have Paul writing “If he shall not work, he shall not eat”. In a small community a person would know into which category a person fell. In my large urban setting I have not that luxury.
Ultimately the image of a cat in need caused me to decide to give the woman a few bucks, and I know that this end to my story reflects no credit upon me, and I make no attempt to claim any. The image of a cat (which I never even saw) in need was more compelling to me than the image of that woman, not much more than a girl really, in need. I know that my sins are forgiven but that doesn’t make them any more palatable, to God or to me.