Jesus (and TAL): Give Cash to Poor People

“Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do […]

R-J Heijmen / 8.26.13

“Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back” (Luke 6.30).

Of all Jesus’ commandments which his followers expressly disobey (my personal fave being Matthew 6:1 where he instructs his audience “not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them”–ironically enough, the lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday(!)), his instruction that we should “give to all who ask” is, perhaps, the one against which we have built the strongest fortification. In fact, if one were to reconstruct Jesus’ teaching on generosity based on the actions and teachings of his church, it might sound more like this: “Only give to people whom you know will do the right thing with your money. Make sure that you’re not enabling them. Do your homework. It’s up to you to make sure that your resources are used for good and not evil. In fact, giving to someone who asks may do a lot more harm than good, and it’s on you to ensure that that doesn’t happen.” As so often occurs, Christians have done a fantastic job of obfuscating and neutering Jesus’ words. We have made generosity, a wonderful fruit of the Spirit, difficult and confusing, squelching much of the joy that it might otherwise entail.


All of which is why a recent piece on This American Life caught my attention. It tells the story of a rather new charity, GiveDirectly, which, unwittingly, seems to be obeying Jesus. Rather than having any sort of grand scheme or plan for helping the poor in the developing world, GiveDirectly’s strategy is almost preposterously simple: give (relatively) large sums of money to those who need it, no strings attached, and let them do whatever they want with it. Crazy! And easy.

Most interestingly, GiveDirectly was not founded by Christians, but by a group of poor doctoral candidates studying development, and inspired not by idealism, but by data (the technocrats at Google were so impressed that they pitched in a couple million bucks). Apparently, study after study has shown that free, unmerited generosity actually works (shocker!), and that the recipients of what we might call financial “grace” most often don’t abuse it (as many would fear), but put it to work in lovely and unpredictable ways. It seems that Jesus may actually have known what he was talking about, and rather than spending so much time and effort trying to control people and outcomes (the law), perhaps Christians might consider giving as they are led (and told), and leave the results up to God.


To check out Mbird’s full-length publication on This American Life, This American Gospel, click here.


8 responses to “Jesus (and TAL): Give Cash to Poor People”

  1. Rob says:

    The verse simply says, “give” it does not state what. If a man asks for money, and I say what for, and he says, “food” I will buy him food. I am under no obligation to give cash simply because one asks specifically and only for cash. Especially If I/we are aware that the person is using the money for drugs. I don’t think Jesus would have given drug money!

    • R-J Heijmen says:

      Rob –

      Well said! I think the point I was trying to make is that we should give freely and give what is asked for, rather than thinking we “know better” than the person who is asking or can somehow control the outcome.

    • hespenshied says:

      If someone asks for cash, don’t we (at least unintentionally) put ourselves in a position of judgement if we ask why?

      If we know why, that’s different…..however, if we don’t, the passage seems to be saying give them the cash.

  2. I knew an old lawyer years ago who would always give five dollars to a dried up wino who hung out around the courthouse. One day the lawyer was walking to court with a businessman client, and they came across the wino. The lawyer gave him the five dollars, as usual. The client said, “Why are you giving that guy five dollars, you know he’s just going to drink it up!” To which the lawyer replied, “What the hell do you think he’s going to do if I don’t give him five dollars, become a damn brain surgeon?” True story. That, to me, is the point of what Jesus said…that God is good to us when he knows we are just going to waste his goodness on bad liquor, so that frees us to do a tiny bit likewise, in our own pathetic way.

    • R-J Heijmen says:

      Reminds me of the criticism John Wesley took that if the English peasants actually believed they were saved by grace, as he was telling them they were, it would engender a great deal of drunkenness, carousing and general misbehavior, to which he responded, “what do you think they’re doing now?!”

  3. John Zahl says:

    Great story, Michael!

  4. Sylvia Harris says:

    RJ – you ROCK!

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