There is a famous story that, on the way to a meeting, C.S. Lewis gave money to a street beggar. His companion, Walter Hooper, made what he called ‘the usual objection.’
“Won’t he just spend it on drink?”
“Yes, but if I kept it, so would I,” answered Lewis.
The man in the painting at top was so often at the intersection of the Inner Loop and St. Paul Street in Rochester that I took to calling him “The Beggar of St. Paul.” The painting is about the comedy of poverty and is based on Watteau’s commedia dell’arte Pierrot. Why? Because I believe that much of our response to poverty is really street theater.
My husband is an easy touch. He takes a similar position to C.S Lewis’, feeling that street beggars probably still need the money more than he does. I tend to just get irritated. For the most part, I tune them out because I don’t want the responsibility of deciding if they’re really in need or not. I vaguely feel that it’s wrong to perpetuate the business of begging. Plus, there have been times when being generous has put us in danger. Not all street people are easy to get along with.
Yesterday I saw a man huddled by an expressway exit. His sign said, “In dire need; anything will help.” He was well-groomed and clean but worn looking, and there was a diffidence and uncertainty in his body language that was unlike most street beggars. I decided to give him whatever came to hand in my wallet before the light changed, which was $4. His thanks were genuine and effusive.
I felt like a real heel. I know if I’d dug deeper there was more cash in there, but I really just wanted to get away as fast as possible.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire…’
You can read the rest of this in Luke 16. What occurred to me today was that we don’t know what excuses the rich man made for his behavior. Maybe Lazarus was one of a hundred beggars who’d lain at his door. Maybe he knew that Lazarus was really someone else’s responsibility. Maybe he thought Lazarus was a faker.
Of course, none of those excuses matter. In the end, the rich man was judged and found wanting. I feel very small about those lousy four bucks. Very small indeed.