Giving on the Streets: Wine, The Pope, and Doing What is ‘Always Right’
Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more. - Proverbs 31: 6-7
Whenever I hear someone cite scripture to make or prove a point I don’t agree with, I think of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when Antonia states, “The Devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”
It’s easy to find Scripture to stand for or against a particular issue or activity. The challenge is that sometimes scripture contradicts itself. Other times, its position is unclear. And sometimes, it’s just strange.
Take Proverbs 31:6-8: “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”
I came across this passage by accident. I didn’t learn it in Sunday school, at church camp, in college or in seminary. And when I bring it up, people are usually surprised and sometimes suspect (until they look it up on their phone). For a long time, I never knew what to do with this scripture. The only time I seemed to use it was for games of “Did you know?”
That all changed last week when an interview with the Pope was published in Scarp de’ Tenis (Tennis Shoes), a monthly magazine for and about people who are homeless.
When someone asks me for money on the street, I tend to get frustrated, even annoyed. Usually I’m thinking of something else or in a hurry to get somewhere. And anyway, most of my giving happens at the end of the year when I have time to think and plan before I write checks to favorite causes.
But on the street, the needs are immediate, unexpected, and right in your face:
Can you spare some change?
I’m hungry, can you help me get something to eat.
Homeless Vet, anything will help, God bless.
When asked about giving money to people who beg for change on the street, The Pope proclaimed that it was “always right” to give something to someone in need. When the interviewer followed up by asking if he would worry about a person using that money for alcohol, he responded by saying “if a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K.”
First, let’s set the record straight. Neither scripture nor the Pope are saying that people who suffer from alcoholism should just go ahead and fall of the wagon and drink. Not at all.
What he is saying is that worrying about what someone might do with the money you give is not a good enough reason to not do what is always right. The scripture doesn’t tell us to scrutinize the poor and then determine whether their pleas meet our requirements for giving.
Drinking wine is not a sin. But walking by a person with indifference or distain is an indignity to humanity and the divine.
This goes against the attitudes many of us have about the poor and the way to “deal” with them. If I can find a reason not to give to someone, then I am justified in not giving. But there are two major problems with this way of thinking.
For one, it doesn’t account for the hypocrisy in our own lives. Take me for example.
At the end of the workday, what to do I do? Often, I go to the fridge, find a cold beer and pop it open. Sometimes I repeat the practice and have another. Or, if I’m with a friend and its after 5 (somewhere) we will more than likely go “grab a beer” (or two) at “happy hour.”
I remember asking my son’s second grade teacher how she was able to handle all the stress and chaos of twenty three seven-year-olds day after day. Her response was that she could always look forward to wine at the end of the day. In Psalm 104, the author refers to “wine that maketh glad the heart of man.” And, according to Proverbs, wine is one way people could handle the stress that poverty imparts.
And second, as much as I like to justify my own end-of-the day beer drinking practices, the Pope’s real point wasn’t about alcohol at all. The real point of his comments was to point out the ways we are called to be present in the lives of our neighbors. We can’t ignore people in need. We can’t walk by them and cast judgment. And it’s not enough to justify our own inaction because of what we think someone may or may not do with the money we give.
According to Pope Francis, the way we give is also important. He says we should give “by looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.” He shared that he always greets people and inquires about their lives. “One can look at a homeless person and see him as a person or else as if he were a dog.”
A friend told me she was moved by the Pope’s challenge. This week, when a person asked her for money, she responded “I don’t have money to give you but would you like some chocolate?” After a momentary pause, the woman responded. “You would share your chocolate with me?” My friend pulled out the candy from her bag, broke it in two, and shared it (and herself) for a moment before running to catch up with the group she’d been walking with.
The chocolate did not change social policy. It was probably not good for their teeth. But this was a moment of double joy - the enjoyment of a delicious food, and the even sweeter encounter between two children of God.
So this Lent, instead of giving everything up, maybe we should give everything out. Instead of quitting wine and chocolate, we should share it. By sharing our wine and our chocolate, we end up sharing what is most important - ourselves.