Ten Bucks for Gas

I was at a convenience store last night, and as I was walking back to my truck, which was parked at the pumps, a van pulled up near me. A guy in the passenger seat called to me, and said he and his companion were on their way to another town (about forty-five miles away), and were running out of gas. They wanted ten bucks, and were willing to give me a couple of DVDs if I’d give them ten bucks.

Well, I’d never had anyone ask me for ten bucks out of the blue, on the street. I was taken a little aback, and as I reached into my pocket I said, “Ten bucks? Dude! I don’t have ten bucks. Here… here’s uh… two bucks. That’s all I’ve got.” He made a motion with the movies that seemed to imply “Well I don’t want to give you the movies for two dollars.” I told him I didn’t want the movies, he could keep the two bucks. He didn’t say thank you. He turned to his companion and said, “we better find somebody else.”

Now, anybody who hangs with me knows that I usually give a beggar whatever is in my pocket. And I don’t expect a thank you, although I think it’s probably the right way to play the game if you’re begging. And I don’t expect to actually be given whatever the beggar says he or she will give in return for money. I’ve been there before. No big deal. I never have regretted giving money to a beggar, and typically the regret is that I could have done more. As I drove away from the convenience store, it occurred to me that I could’ve had the guy pull over to a pump, and put ten dollars worth of gas in his van. So then, here’s the real point of this post:

I have a different philosophical view of this beggar thing than most people I know. If a drunk has the shakes and wants three bucks for a bottle of beer, well, you know what? He needs that bottle of beer more than I need a bottle of coffee. Go ahead and tell me I’m contributing to bad behavior if you want, but let’s see you in the middle of addiction and see if your perspective changes. I’m just saying…. Well, whatever. Either you get it, or you don’t. My blog, my opinion.

So let’s suppose that nine beggars out of ten are bumming money for drugs or smokes or booze. (My experience is that the percentage isn’t this high, but let’s suppose.) That means one time out of ten, I’ll help somebody who does honestly need gas or food or a place to get out of the cold. One time out of ten. Now just suppose that those odds aren’t good enough for me, so I never give any beggar anything. In a world where a whole bunch of people (usually those people with power and privilege) complain that everything is being dummied down and they suffer every day because of the sloth and dishonesty of the troublemakers who don’t pull their weight, what would I be doing by denying the genuinely hungry, because of those who bum for beer?

I tend to think I’d be guilty of something. On the drive home last night, my overactive, analogy-producing, metaphor-making brain imagined myself in front of God on a day of reckoning. I imagined two possibilities. One, God asks me why I allowed ninety percent of the money I gave to beggars to be simply wasted. In this case, my reply is that some beggars needed me, and I couldn’t tell which was which, but that didn’t change the need of the latter and my ability to help them. Two, God asks me why I never helped anybody who begged, and my reply is that I figured God didn’t want me to waste money on the true bums, and I couldn’t tell which was which, so I played it safe. And I’ve gotta say, as my drive came to an end, I decided that I would feel a lot more right and with the program if I had to say I wasted ninety percent of the money to help ten percent of the people, than if I had to say I helped zero percent of the people because I didn’t want to waste any percent of my money. Seems pretty simple to me. And that got me to thinking about interpretation of a particular parable…

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away…'” (Matthew 25:14-29, NRSV)

I’m not sure it fits just right or not, but at the moment I’m thinking that we Christians (read: those of us who are rich Christians) very often use this parable as a justification for, oh, investing our money to make more, buying a BMW because it holds its value, owning a nice home because it’s part of a nest egg, and pretty much anything we can think of that helps us get more for ourselves from what we’ve been given. We call this “being good stewards,” and I’ve written about the dubiousness of this before. Most of it comes from interpretations of this one, single parable in the Bible. And tonight, I’m thinking about a new interpretation that’s a bit more down to the street level. I’m thinking that if I don’t help the ten percent because I don’t want to waste money on the ninety, I’m pretty much like the slave who buried the talents in the ground.

But that’s just me.

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