Summary: A sermon about how we should respond to begging
I have lived in the Wellington Region for well over 30 years, and during this time, I have seen many changes in the urban landscape. Buildings have come and gone. Whole streets have disappeared, and new ones have emerged. But one change I find particularly disturbing is that it is now an everyday occurrence to see beggars in downtown Wellington. It would seem you cannot walk the length of Lambton Quay at lunchtime on a weekday without passing at least three or four people begging.
Beggars provoke a variety of responses in people. Some pretend they do not exist, and completely ignore them.
Some say it is counterproductive to give to beggars, and that we should instead contribute to charities that assist the homeless. And I encourage you to support the excellent work of organisations like Soup Kitchen Wellington, the Wellington City Mission, and DCM Wellington, formerly known as the Downtown Community Ministry. And get behind the 14 Hours Homeless fundraiser on Friday 7 October, when hundreds of people around the country sleep out in a car, on a couch, or on cardboard to raise funds to help New Zealand’s homeless population. But don’t ignore the beggars.
Some point out out that those begging may have addictions that we are feeding. Now there can be no doubt some use their donations to purchase things like alcohol and tobacco. But we can’t simply assume this about every beggar we see. Besides, even those who are abusing themselves with substances still have to survive somehow. And we should also remember Jesus did not drug test anybody or ask to see their insurance policies before he helped them.
Some suggest begging is a lifestyle choice, and that those who beg do quite well out of it. Back in 2010, Dominion-Post journalist Dave Burgess received over $160 worth of food and money after going undercover as a beggar for two two-hour stints. He donated his proceeds to the Wellington City Mission. I don’t know how much money the average beggar makes, but I would be surprised if many did as well as Burgess. Now there may well be some people begging who don’t really need to beg, but I would suggest they are the exception, not the rule. Most beggars I have seen had their heads bowed in shame. Some emotional states can be easily faked. But it is very difficult to fake abject despair and humiliation.
But the worst response to beggars I know of is when they are run out of town for spoiling the view for the more privileged. Palmerston North City Council provoked outrage when it proposed keeping beggars out of town during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. And Auckland Council has aimed to remove the homeless from the streets by 2020. Although neither of these compare with Delhi’s and Rio de Janeiro’s destruction of whole communities of its very poorest in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth and 2016 Olympic Games respectively.
So, how do I personally respond to beggars? Nowhere near as generously as I think I should be. I sometimes give them a gold coin, or something to eat. And often a silent prayer when I walk past.
If we look to see what the scriptures have to say about begging, there are very few references to begging in the Older Testament. The Law made excellent provision for redistributing wealth to meet the needs of the poor. (It turns out we did not invent social welfare in Aotearoa New Zealand after all, even if we did pioneer the modern welfare state!)
But by Jesus’ time, there was a very different political structure in place. Palestine was now occupied territory, and the halcyon days of Israel’s golden age were well and truly ancient history. Beggars were now present in abundance, and it is worth noting that those whom Jesus encountered inevitably seemed to be begging because they were sick, indicating society’s most vulnerable inhabitants were not being cared for adequately. And that sounds depressingly familiar.
Today’s gospel reading is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This parable is only found in the Gospel according to St Luke. It is said to be based on an Egyptian folk tale, but we cannot be certain of this.
The story is quite straightforward. We have a rich man. Not just rich, but very rich: only the exceedingly wealthy could afford to wear purple. And we have a very poor man at his gate, whom he ignores. When they have both died, their positions have reversed. The poor man finds himself in a place of comfort, while the rich man finds himself in a place of torment. And it would seem that it was his greed that got him there.
This was a very political message that directly challenged those in power. In Jesus’ day, wealth was seen as being a sign of blessing from God. But Jesus was unequivocal in his teaching that following him required sharing riches with those in need, a theme echoed in today’s epistle reading from the First Letter of St Paul to Timothy, which explicitly states, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”.1