The Bible has very little specific to say about beggars (prōsaitai; "beggars, panhandlers, mendicants") and the practice of begging (prosaiteō and epaiteō). It has more to say, however, about the poor (ptōchoi), those who are economically disadvantaged and oppressed, or disillusioned. But the poor are likely a social class, corresponding to Lenski's peasant class who lived at or near the bare subsistence level.1 By contrast beggars would likely be in the expendable class, people who live at the very bottom of every agrarian society.2
Searching begging-specific words in the Septuagint of the Protestant Old Testament (Greek Septuagint manuscripts are older than the Hebrew Bible manuscripts), the following passages use begging-specific words: Psalm 109:10 (being reduced to begging is a curse on a wicked man). In the Old Testament (Catholic) Sirach 40:30 (begging is described as a shameless enterprise); Sirach 40:28 ("it is better to die than to beg").
In the New Testament begging-specific words are used six times: Mark 10:46-52: the son of Timaeus (bar Timaeus), a blind beggar "sitting by the road," is healed by Jesus.3 The Gospel of John has the story of a blind man (John 9:1-40), whose friends and neighbors had seen him as a beggar who "used to sit and beg" (John 9:8).4
The parable of Jesus about the steward of a rich man (in my judgment misnamed "the "Dishonest Steward," Luke 16:1-7), who complains when he is fired: "I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg" (Luke 16:3). Note that he was fired on the basis of a rumor and had no prospects for the future. Indeed, taking up begging by necessity would in effect be a death sentence, since it would thrust him into the ranks of the expendables.5
Luke has another similar story (it is not called a parable) about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). It is not a story about a beggar but rather a story about a poor man (ptōchoi), Lazarus, who lay at the rich man's gate full of sores, desiring to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table (Luke 16:20).
No doubt many of those in the peasant class (ptōchoi) were often reduced to begging (1 Sam 2:31-36, Psalm 37:25, Exod 23:10) or chose to sell themselves into slavery (Lev 25:39-42, Deut 15:11-14), since they had no other options. The peasant class (ptōchoi) receives more attention than do beggars in the gospels. The gospel writer we have dubbed Luke, for example, writes into the heart of his paper protagonist, Jesus, a special place for the poor (ptōchoi) unmatched by the other three gospel writers (the ptōchoi appear in Mark [5x], Matthew [5x], John [4x], and in Luke [10x]). And it seems that Luke simply overlooks beggars as the subject of Jesus' care and concern; for example:
Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, which includes captives, the blind, the oppressed (Luke 4:18).
The kingdom of God belongs to the poor (Luke 6:20).
Jesus sent a message to John: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them (Luke 7:22).
The wealthy are told that when they give a banquet they should invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:13).
The rich ruler was told to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:22).
Zacchaeus said that he was giving half of everything to the poor, and would repay those he defrauded four times the amount he cheated them (Luke 19:8).
But Beggars receive no consideration in these litanies about the disadvantaged. On the other hand, the Bible has nothing to say about the modern problem of panhandling as a professional vocation.6 People who stand at major intersections of your city, weather permitting, warmly dressed and carrying handwritten signs each appearing highly similar are a far cry from the expendables of antiquity. But their presence still raises the question of how should one respond to them.
The same question came up once when working in Egypt. Our Muslim expatriate Palestinian driver was asked by one of our company about a tragic beggar sitting beside the road. She asked, "Saadi, how much should we give him in Egyptian pounds?" Saadi replied: "That's between you and your God!"
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Lenzki, Power and Privilege.
2Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 182-83 for a brief discussion of the social classes.
3In the parallel passage in Luke 18:35 he is called "a blind man sitting by the road begging." Matthew does not have the story of bar Timaeus, the beggar, but has a story of the healing of two blind men (Matt20:29-34; 9:27-31).
4John has turned what was originally a story about the healing of a blind beggar into a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees.
5Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 145-62.
6Millar, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 93-94.