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.