Riding my motorcycle to work recently, a panhandler that I see at the same street corner every morning caught my attention. His relatively new bicycle was parked beside a stop sign, along with his backpack. He had a cooler and several empty water bottles laid neatly beside it. With a forced smile, he held a cardboard sign with a version of the message that I’m sure you have seen – “Anything will help. God bless.”

Someone in front of me opened their window no more than an inch and pushed a bill through the crack. In a well-rehearsed dance, he limped to the window, thanked the driver and quickly moved out of the way, which we all appreciated since the light had just turned green.

The city council, local non-profits and local divinity school students work with people who are down on their luck like this. In addition to raising funds to provide them with necessities to make their hard lives easier (such as backpacks, bikes, etc.), they take the time to make sure the homeless are known, counted and given transportation to a shelter in extreme weather for those who will accept it.

In general, we are a compassionate society.

Throughout Scripture, we are told that Jesus had a mission of helping the poor. He told us that when we help anyone who is in need, it is the same as if we were helping Jesus, himself. When the woman with the alabaster jar anointed him with expensive oil shortly before his death, we are told in Mark 14:7 that when Jesus was rebuked by a disciple, he responded, The poor will always be with you and you can help them any time you want.

Ancient Rome had people who lived on the margins of society just like we have in modern America.  Yet with all the similarities that exist between our society and theirs, first century Roman compassion was very different from what we’re used to in our own society.

Jesus was born into a time with few government-sponsored social programs. Families helped their own family members, but rarely did this type of caring extend out.

Ancient Rome didn’t have faith-based communities that operated in the same way as ours do today. Temples were erected for worshiping the various recognized gods, but very few of these were built around social service. The Jewish community was an exception, but the structured social system they enjoyed was only for the Jewish population.

In first century Rome, if you were down and out, there weren’t many options.

Given the times in which he lived, it’s easy to see that Jesus’ message of compassion was revolutionary.  Several millennia later, this message has become a part of our everyday lives. We are a society that helps people in need and much of our modern understanding of compassion comes from the practices of the early Christian church.

Which brings us back to our panhandler.

Our gospel teaches us that our duty is to find a way to give that works for our own sense of compassion.  It may be money you feel compelled to give.  Or it may be time.  For most, it’s probably both.  Your way to give is probably different than mine and that’s okay.  You may give to a panhandler.  Someone else may give to a church, or the Salvation Army.

Or maybe a single mom.

The guy on the corner looked at me and waved as I twisted the throttle. Giving to a panhandler from your bike is like being on your motorcycle when you pull up to a toll booth – no graceful way to pay and get on your way.

Besides, the light was green.

Further Reading …

This post references Mark 14:7.  I’ll admit this quote is used out of the original context, though it makes a point that I feel is applicable to the topic and consistent with the message.  We can (and should) help those less fortunate when we are able.