If she asks for tacos, give a salad?

“Ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.  Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent…For behold, are we not all beggars?”  (Mosiah 4 16:19)

Lived Christianity is … difficult.  In a multitude of everyday encounters, I either genuinely don’t know, or my natural instinct is not to follow, how Christ would act.

I’ve dubbed these my moral “dilemmas of the day.”

Take yesterday.  The poor often congregate near where I work.  My office is in a gentrifying area — upscale cafes serving business professionals are popping up next to downtrodden public housing and shelters.  Nearly every day, someone asks me for help.

I’m terribly imperfect and inconsistent at actually helping (to say nothing of acknowledging their existence as human beings).  But there is one pattern I try to follow. If I’m out grabbing lunch or dinner, and someone asks politely (not by cat-calling) for food (not money), I offer to buy them a meal.

That pattern may itself evince too much judgment for my neighbors.  But nonetheless, here’s how it played out yesterday:

I escaped my office, intending to grab a Sweetgreen salad for dinner. As I was approaching the shop, a woman politely asked if I could help get her something to eat.

I hesitated for a second, before remembering I want to accommodate requests like these.

“I’m about to get a salad — do you want a salad?” I asked.

“Oh,” her face fell. “I was hoping for Chipotle tacos.”  (There was a Chipotle next door to the Sweetgreen.)

“I’m sorry, but I’m not going to Chipotle, and I don’t have any cash — but I can get you a salad,” I offered again.

“That’s all right,” she declined. “I’ll be ok.”

I bid her a good day and went on to get my salad, then returned to work.  But this mini-drama was still nagging at me.  Was there a more Christian way I could have acted?

So I posed my moral dilemma to my Facebook friends.  And, to my fascination, they split approximately evenly between “offering a salad was itself generous, and exactly right,” and “Jesus would have taken an extra five minutes out of his day to get this woman tacos.”

Especially after hearing the reflections of friends who have been poor, homeless, and hungry, I think the “tacos” have it.  As two remarked:

If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? (Luke 11:11)…or if she asks for a taco, will she give her a salad?

Here’s my public commitment to do better.  The next time I offer a meal, I’ll do my best to accommodate the specific meal my neighbor requests.  Compassion is worth the mild inconvenience.

Comments

  1. Elle Dee says:

    Your friends’ use of that scripture in Matthew isn’t resonating with me, in part because you can’t eat stones, and Leviticus commands not to eat snakes. This seems like the sort of verse I’d pull out if, instead of food, you’d offered the hungry woman a new pair of socks or a library card.

  2. Elle Dee says:

    That said, I admire the thoughtfulness of your post and your desire to be more compassionate.

  3. Seems like providing food from Chipotle would be exactly like giving a serpent. Both will bite you in the butt.

  4. Great question as I struggle with similar things myself. For my own salvation, I’ve come to decide that the fact that one struggles to do the right thing is the most important factor (as long as action is actually taken. An academic struggle is not enough). For the hungry person, I too would try to accommodate what they are asking for when I can as this seems the greater charity and kindness. But at the same time recognizing that this person is not on death’s door because of hunger and if my best in the moment (offering the salad) isn’t ‘good enough’ for them, then that’s not a failure of mine.

  5. Oof, that is very difficult. I have sometimes been told “I don’t like that” or given an annoyed side-eye when I’ve offered food to people who are begging. It leaves me with a feeling of both offense and inadequacy and makes me not want to reach out the next time. I know the point of giving charity is not to make myself feel good but to make others feel good, but is it still charity if it makes me feel bad or like I’m being taken advantage of? Asking what Jesus would do is tricky here – Jesus blessed the loaves and fishes in front of him, he didn’t conjure up chicken and hummus out of thin air. There is, of course, no comment about how the meal was received. We just assume everyone was grateful regardless of whether they liked it or not, but I’m sure there must have been people there who didn’t like it. For my own self, I don’t want to fall into the trap of judging someone for their wants, but I also don’t like the feeling of being dictated to when I’m trying to do a favor. But then the very framing of it as “doing a favor” makes me feel even more judgy and uncharitable. Darn unequal society.

  6. Years ago I bought a homeless guy a cup of coffee on a freezing cold day and was pretty heavily criticized by close LDS friends for it. The way I saw it, ideally, it would be great if we all lived the word of wisdom, but this guy hadn’t made any commitments to God or to a community to not drink coffee, and it was cold, and it warmed him up. Telling him “no I won’t buy you coffee, but how about a nice cup of cocoa,” just seemed in the moment to be patronizing and kind of insulting and didn’t feel right.

  7. Happy Hubby says:

    I wish items such as this discussion could be used instead of the zzz manuals I have heard many times over.

  8. I think if I had changed my own plans and gone to Chipotle, I would have felt much better about it — the gift would have been not only lunch, but also the satisfying of a human wish. But I think that now, not then. I’m terrible at such thinking in the moment, and pretty good at following through another time after having heard a suggestion. Thanks.

  9. I guess people fall short of what we’d hope them to be. We’d hope she’d graciously accept a salad, thus making our offering (and ourselves) sufficient, or even praiseworthy. But sometimes, there’s a little pushback. People we want to help often let us down, and we have to dig deep.
    The more I serve, the more I realize that service is not just a gift of time or food, but an offering of forgiveness. I forgive you for not wanting salad. I will help you move, even though I know why you’re getting divorced. I’ll sit by you, even though you’re an insufferable headcase. I’ll love you, even though you’re not me.

  10. Don’t forget the Wasatch Front translation of that Luke verse (also Matthew 7:9-11):

    9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?

    10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

    11 If ye give them bread or a fish then ye are evil. Say instead, let me teach you to fish. Then you will know how to give unto your children good gifts that are policy approved by Heritage and CATO (not to mention the Sutherland Institute and Eagle Forum), and how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Yea, verily, even God will say, I will not give you in your hour of need but will teach you how to get for yourselves based on the eternal principles of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’

    Still, offering the salad, I think, was sufficient for your Christian duty — at least you didn’t respond by offering to teach her how to make a taco! It was her choice not to accept what you had to offer at that time.

  11. Ardis — that’s a really good and important point: most of us (I’m with you) think of such solutions after the fact but while in the moment it honestly doesn’t occur to us.

  12. The cup of coffee is absolutely clear to me. Tacos vs salad seems relatively easy, from a distance. But I’m sure I have failed much more than I’ve helped, and will again.
    But the real question that comes up on the street and in more private welfare situations and dealing with poverty in the larger world is food vs medical care vs money. There are credible arguments and demonstrations that money makes more difference and has more short term and long term beneficial effect, as well as being more often what the person asking really wants. I know (all too well) the judgmental “he’ll just drink it up.” I’m not easy resting on that thought.

  13. “The more I serve, the more I realize that service is not just a gift of time or food, but an offering of forgiveness.”

    This seems important. I don’t know if I would put it as forgiveness, b/c that might imply that we have authority to forgive, and in most cases, we don’t have “standing” (for lack of a better term) to be offended by the sins of others. But still, gesturing to a person that we have “no cause,” (in the words of King Lear) to condemn them seems really important.

  14. @Christiankimball: I’ve seen so many economic studies about what direct cash transfers does for the impoverished. A small contribution ($5) often does go to cigarettes/alcohol — and often goes to food. But even a little bit more ($50 or $500) pretty quickly sorts itself into literal priorities: rent, warm clothes, medicine, education, fixing a car, trying to find a new job…people who are living on the line can actually be trusted to know what their literal needs are and address them. We would all do well to remember that more often.

  15. We had a similar experience recently leaving a restaurant with some leftovers and offering them to a homeless guy who asked for food. But then he had so many questions–what kind of sauce was on the lasagna? Did it have onions in it? that he eventually wasn’t interested, I was frustrated, and my kids learned the saying about beggars can’t be choosers.

  16. Now, to argue with myself in my 8:41am comment, where I said “offering the salad, I think, was sufficient for your Christian duty . . . . It was her choice not to accept what you had to offer at that time“, I would say that later teachings in Matthew create the basis for a deeper level of Christian duty, a level in which we view (and treat) the beggar as Christ himself:

    Matthew 25:40 records the following saying by Jesus: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” More specifically, he said that

    44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungerd, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

    45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. (Matthew 25:44-45, emphasis added)

    So this one bounces us back to your Facebook friends who recommended getting the tacos instead of the salad! What would we do if Jesus begged us for tacos instead of a salad? Jesus teaches in these verses that we should minister to the hungry and that failing to do so, we fail to do it to him. I’d hope Jesus would know I’d give him tacos if that’s what he begged for.

    Following on this idea of ministering, I recall an excellent post by Mark Brown a few years ago that highlighted the respect that should be involved when ministering to the hungry and homeless. His post focused on differences in how he’d observed Christians serving the poor actually treated the poor people they were serving. Both groups of Christians he observed served the hungry and homeless, discharging Christian duty on that level. But only one of the groups treated those they were serving the way I hope we would all treat the Savior himself if he, rather than a beggar, were the recipient. In Mark’s example, that group of Christians showed the homeless people — people at the very bottom of society, cast out, despised — respect by seeing them as people, as evidenced by sitting with them, talking to them, eating the same food with them, and finally singing hymns of praise together with them.

    Maybe true Christian living would demand of us not only that we buy her tacos but also sit and socialize with her during the meal, thereby ministering to her as a fellow human being, worthy of companionship and dignity? Really tough question — and, as always, a tough demand the Gospel seems to be making of us.

  17. Coffee vs cocoa is fairly easy, as the price is comparable. The trouble is when we’re trying to find the line. If the person had expressed desire for a much more expensive food, would it have been easier to refuse? Do we make fun of those whose line is lower than ours? How do we know when our line is too much or not enough?

  18. Last time today says:

    If you were really serving her needs you would have spent the extra five minutes to tossed her salad yourself.

  19. Excellent comment, John. FWIW, my gut says the savior would both praise and approve Carolyn’s salad offer and not condemn her, and also want us to take the time to minister, including buying tacos if that’s what the spirit directs.

  20. JKC, I had similar reservations about couching it as forgiveness. As the person providing the service or charity, we can be fooled into thinking we have some sort of moral authority because we have the time or means to serve. At any rate, it is a willingness to set aside our limited perceptions and judgements and help them anyway.

  21. Well yes it is compassionate and Christ-like to give tacos where requested. My concern is where is the line drawn? If someone came up and politely requested filet mignon and lobster, would you feel the same about providing them that? Perhaps I’m too judgmental and it was good today to read the scriptures about being beggars all of us. But there’s another saying (not scripture, but still widely spread about) of “God Helping Those Who Help Themselves”…https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_helps_those_who_help_themselves I tend to go with that, and if a person is struggling but trying, I MAY help them with food. I never give money. Too many con-artists in Utah for that to happen although it’s not my place to judge them either. I’m glad you offered her something to eat. If she were truly hungry, any food is better than none, in my opinion. She was a bit presumptive.

  22. “Lived Christianity is difficult” is quote of the day. And understatement of the day.

    I’m in a position that decides whether to and how much assistance to provide people. I’ve had members and non-members alike ask for a surprising variety of things. My first question is do you have cable and do you have a deluxe phone? Will I be condemned for asking that? I hope not. What if they are destitute but own an iphone (I don’t even own a smart phone myself) and ask for rent? Do I ask them to ignore their phone commitment?

    We have to use our best judgment. Because money is fungible I have to decide if the $8 Chipotle meal is a better use than two $4 taco bell burritos going to two different people. Or $8 going to fast offerings next month. Or $8 going to my daughters college fund so she can stay out of debt. Or $8 going to pay for a Guatemalan family to eat for 2 days.

    I really believe if we are trying our level best to be good people and serve we won’t be condemned for making a judgment call. We just might be condemned for judging however.

  23. I think you did OK by offering the salad. A salad is not a stone or a serpent. I too have a personal policy of just offering a meal, not cash because I’ve seen first hand where that can go. Sometimes, I’m with family members walking downtown, and I don’t want to leave them on their own too long to go help someone, so I offer what I think I can do at that moment. Where I live, you could literally take the entire evening of every visit downtown and clean out your checking account buying meals or supplies for everyone in need–you clearly have to set limits.
    I think it’s pretty simple, you offered what you felt you could do at the time. She’s an adult and you respected her right to decline your offer. She can make her own decisions, and she was going to be OK either way.

  24. I can understand the “do you have cable” question — but I confess, I can’t ever judge anyone for having an iphone. An iphone is a ticket to everything — to communication, to internet access, to reading, to education, to current events, to public transportation, to community resources, to banking. It’s one single purchase that you use constantly and which fulfills a multitude of social goods you might not otherwise have access to. And amortized over it’s 2-3 year lifespan, even assuming you buy it new, it’s like $2 a day. I’m not going to begrudge someone $2 a day to connect to a wealth of resources they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

  25. I totally agree re smartphones, Carolyn. To ridiculously overextend the “teach a man to fish” analogy, a smartphone is a fishing rod. You might be able to catch fish without one, but it’s a lot harder, and if a man hasn’t caught anything and is hungry, I’m not going to insist that he get rid of his rod before I give him one of my fish.

    Getting a smartphone might be the most effective first step toward finding better employment for a lot of people–especially if you don’t have a car and don’t live within easy walking distance of a public library.

    I generally agree on cable, but also, depending on where you live, you might not be able to get internet access without paying for cable as well, and internet access has way more value than TV, for the same reasons we’ve already mentioned about smartphones–especially if you don’t have a smartphone.

  26. I wonder how many of the 5000 ask for something else besides bread and fish?

  27. I completely agree on smartphones. $12/month for the phone, for something that is becoming increasingly more essential for everything in daily life, especially employment or seeking employment.

  28. I was talking to a Lyft driver one of the days I left work at 3 a.m., and he said that in the early hours of morning, the “hottest” Lyft markets in town are the most impoverished ones. A huge swath of people have figured out that to get to their 5 a.m. janitor, security guard, medical aide, breakfast-dish-cleaning, etc. jobs that the $8 Lyft fare and 10 minute direct ride is preferable to a $3 bus fare + 1 hour ride. They get more sleep and more time with their families (or more time to work a second job), and even at minimum wage that tradeoff is worth it. All of which is accomplished with having a smartphone from which you can order a Lyft.

  29. You don’t make friends with salad.

  30. I wonder if she desired Chipotle because it would keep her satiated for a longer period of time. It does take longer for protein and fat to digest and Chipotle tacos are full of those two things. Also, I’ll mention this as a side note. I have a brother who suffers from schizophrenia and for years would only eat fast food because he thought it was the only “safe” food (as in non poisoned) for him to eat. Anyways, with that family experience on my mind I just want to share that many of the chronically homeless are suffering from severe mental illness and their requests may seem entitled or weird because they are suffering from a debilitating illness that is very difficult to get quality treatment for.

  31. Good point, Marie. If I were only going to eat once in a given day, I’d want chipotle over a salad.

  32. it's a series of tubes says:

    Last time today says:

    Yikes, I bet 99% of BCC readers will miss this one. Uncalled for.

  33. series of tubes: oh, no, salad-tossing is always called for.

  34. My first reaction is that it’s not a short order house.

    My second reaction is that it reminds me of when I gave my groceries to a beggar while I was on my mission. He called me an angel of light and was so grateful, and as soon as he got around the corner he threw it all in the trash. 15 years later when I went back, he was still begging.

    My third reaction is that it occurs to me that as the type of people we are (you & I specifically), we buy fruits and salads which are low calorie and not as nutrient and protein rich as tacos because we are upper middle class white women, so we are always trying to “eat sensibly,” but if we were worried about where our next meal came from, we’d be wiser to focus on protein and carbs (the opposite of how I normally choose my lunches). So maybe our lunch choices are also a manifestation of our socio-economic status.

  35. For me, I found that if I work in a shelter with homeless I feel as if I have directly contributed to someones needs.

    We do serve white bread carbs and lots of mac and cheese. So many of them have little to no oral hygiene and their teeth just can’t crunch things. At the shelter though I also get to do a bit of Ardis’ idea. Small conversations, face time, etc. We have returnee’s, people who will be perpetually in the system. We have others who we watch move on – and we rejoice with them.

    You did good. Really good. You saw her. You conversed with her. You cared about her.

    My mom carries restaurant gift cards, McDonalds, Chipolte, KFC, these are her gifts when someone makes a request. If they don’t want it, she wishes them a nice day.

    I believe we are taught by Alma or King Benjamin that even if we have none to give, then say a prayer for them, and that counts, too. Take a moment and say a prayer. You both will be blessed by it.

  36. I find every situation is different-I respond differently to different people. Some I will give cash too, others food. Some I will give nothing as I recognise them as being from organised gangs of ‘beggars’ dropped off on a route and all picked up later. I sometimes think the Saviours advice is a guideline and we can read too much into some scriptures. And sometimes no one right piece of advice resulting in one correct response

  37. I just can’t believe all the “beggars can’t be choosers” responses. People don’t even try to conceal their contempt for the poor, or their self-righteousness for giving what is of little consequence to them instead of what would mean so much to someone else. This is not what the Church teaches, or taught in the early days of the Welfare Program when contributors were regularly reminded that the poor occasionally need something new and not always the made-over castoffs of others. May God be more generous with you than some of you are with others!

    I should delete this rather than posting it … but apparently I am no more Christian than many others here.

  38. Angela C says:

    Ardis is right to chastise us to try to see things from the perspective of the other person rather than just our own. It’s difficult, but that’s what we must learn to do. I know I need that reminder.

  39. Chadwick says:

    Regarding beggars can’t be choosers…if I became homeless today, I still won’t like pickles. Being homeless won’t change my taste buds.

    I love the story of a young latter day prophet who gave away his brand new coat to a cold boy rather than his old one. His mother scolded him then quickly turned about face and hugged him. I’m still striving to emulate that type of love.

    And I absolutely agree; beggars put us on the spot and sometimes I wish for a do over when I am not caught off guard or startled at the exchange.

  40. Sometimes says:

    I work with homeless people and have seen them turn down food offered many times or complain that all they ever get offered is McDonalds. I think it’s hard for us to even imagine never being able to pick what you eat. You can never afford your favorite meal, you eat whatever the shelter offers that day. It’s a seriously rough existence and that small act of letting them choose can make their day. I understand the gut reaction of beggars can’t be choosers, but if that applies to every choice they ever make? Sometimes beggars should be allowed to be choosers. But I love that you offer food and are thinking of people who are homeless! I enjoyed reading this and the comments.

  41. Bless you for having the conscience to even consider your experience as a moral dilemma. You could have just ignored, and quickly forgotten, her.

  42. John F stated:

    Don’t forget the Wasatch Front translation of that Luke verse (also Matthew 7:9-11):

    9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?

    10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

    11 If ye give them bread or a fish then ye are evil. Say instead, let me teach you to fish. Then you will know how to give unto your children good gifts that are policy approved by Heritage and CATO (not to mention the Sutherland Institute and Eagle Forum), and how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Yea, verily, even God will say, I will not give you in your hour of need but will teach you how to get for yourselves based on the eternal principles of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’

    Those Wasatch Mormons! Treating people unfairly by generalizing their circumstances and viewpoints, putting everyone into the same unfair category, and then creating ideological straw men to easily knock down so that they don’t have to look at others charitably. It’s almost like they want to choose a political ideology, draw a line in the sand with it, and say everyone on one side is good and everyone on the other is bad. Luckily, we don’t have to worry about that outside of Utah. I mean, no one at this blog does that sort of thing, right?

  43. John Mansfield says:

    The dilemma I have with all this is: If turning down a beggar’s request places one on the left hand with the goats, and if questioning a beggar’s petition is another bit of uncharitableness, and adding to that the concept that we are all beggars, then anyone who asks anything of me has a moral claim to have me provide it. Or turned around, you have a moral obligation to give me anything I ask of you. Fortunately, I already had lunch, so I won’t request any of you to send tacos to my office and burden you with the worry that you are sinning in not so succoring me. I sometimes wonder about the difference between turning down a begging salesman and turning down a beggar not offering goods or services.

  44. I am particularly worn down right now so I am both negative and cynical. But I am questioning how exactly this is to work. Several times in my life I have given what I now consider too much. I was not just made uncomfortable by my sacrifice, I bled. As a friend once said at the pulpit, when she paid her tithing or gave a generous fast, that was immediately followed by her car breaking down.
    When I believed literally in the promises, too often they did not come true and I was shown that I have been naive to believe literally in the fulfillment of lessons taught in Church. I watched my bishop squirm one time when I answered his plea to the ward members to give generously to the budget because we were in quite a bit of debt. I dug deep and gave more that I comfortably could. I realized by his reaction that he had exaggerated the plea and I, and it seems only I, had taken it seriously.
    Am I being tested and what exactly should I learn from this — to remain faithful during the long night of darkness or to take better care of myself first and not to sacrifice so much for others that are suffering?
    I am watching a person I care about deeply try to deal with a body worn out too young from hard physical labor. She is unable to pay for the medical tests required to determine exactly what is wrong. Yet she works for a company that provides good health insurance, but it will not cover an MRI. And even if it did, taking time out to recover from an operation is not an option. She could not meet her rent payment with only disability payments.
    In a church culture that values financial success and the public appearance of financial success, one’s opportunity to teach and serve is severely limited if helping others ends up destroying your financial well-being. And often that financial destruction destroys your spiritual equilibrium as well. Should I protect myself so I will be seen as fit to call to leadership positions, to speak in temple sessions, to teach lessons?
    Please excuse me if buying another a salad seems too much to contemplate at this time.

  45. They may be asking you for the meal that will have the most anti depressant effect.
    Seeking comfort more than nutrition
    So this should make it easier to ask them what they specifically want.
    After all…are we all not beggars for drugs in the form of food?

  46. jimbob, do you disagree that the Wasatch Front translation is accurate? (I just heard it in a missionary homecoming talk yesterday in Provo — from a missionary returning from Peru, no less, where you would think one would learn something about the nature of poverty and that “teaching a man how to fish” absolutely is not an adequate or appropriate Christian response to the begging children and families living in destitute poverty.)

  47. My intent was that to point out the irony of condemning unfair judgmentalism by use of unfair judgmentalism.

    More to the point, I don’t live in Utah, and don’t follow its politics, but I understand the putative-Wasatch impulse you’re poking fun at. I spent years in small church units in poor areas with large welfare needs, and my hard-won experience is that while most people were trying to work but needed some help, there were also an alarming amount of people who were not interested in working and yet were demanding charity and trying to dictate how that charity was to be spent on them. And not just with Church resources. Many people I knew well had no intention of ever getting off state welfare, because that would require work and sacrifice.

    And so with posts like these I often find myself at a quandary, because I know most people are trying and just need a hand. But when I hear a homeless person is asking not just for food, but seemingly demanding a certain type of food from a certain type of restaurant, I’m taken back a decade-and-a-half to the umpteenth midnight call from my mostly-indigent hometeachee literally demanding not just fried chicken, but a #5 from Popeye’s with a Pepsi, and could I have it to her in the next 30 minutes, because “Brother [jimbob], I’m a hella hungry.”

    In sum, I find myself straddling the fences on these sorts of debates, and preferring the middle way of charitability tied to some expectation of trying to improve, even if those efforts are abortive. It’s frankly for this reason I volunteer at the Salvation Army food bank, because they make lots food available, but they don’t always make the process of getting to it totally comfortable for the person asking. Maybe that’s not the way Christ would do it. But it’s the best I can do.

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