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Today is Epiphany. Let’s celebrate by giving cash to the homeless. 

I know we cite plenty of reasons not to. 

What if the money is misused? Shouldn’t we give to root causes? What if our helping actually hurts? (Kate Parsons addresses these questions in her short essay, summarizing a study on global cash transfer titled Just Give Money to the Poor)

Epiphany is a celebration of God showing up to unexpected people in unexpected ways. Celebrating this grace by giving to the homeless seems like a perfect response. 

Tyler Huckabee, senior editor at Relevant Magazine, wrote a substack explaining why he gives cash to the homeless:

  • “Most homeless people endure a regimen of indignities and trials that would constitute, for many of us, far and away the worst day of our lives.”
  • Giving cash is an act of trust: that people who are homeless know what they need. 
  • If that need is replaced by a beer on a hard day, we might consider why we don’t turn our same critical lens to the spending of the ultra rich, whose actions far more directly impact our lives and the lives of the homeless — and whose tax loopholes and bailouts do not require the drug tests many homeless shelters impose. 
  • Tenting and panhandling is being criminalized in many places, while legal mandates to increase housing stock will never match the number of people who need affordable homes. 
  • When we give, we honor the literal words of Jesus, and 99+ Bible verses

I’ll add my own reason: when we give to the homeless, we are invited to see the poor, and seeing the overlooked has been where I have most fully experienced Epiphany, the manifestation of God. 

Celebrating Epiphany honors Jesus’ revelation to the people we least expect, sometimes the people who make us feel the most uncomfortable. 

The text for Epiphany is the visit of the Magi in Matthew 2. King Herod—despite his impressive achievements as King of Judea—has become a paranoid tyrant (Josephus’ words, not mine) and now seeks to kill Jesus to preserve his political power. 

The religious leaders of the day unwittingly play their role in this plot to kill Jesus. King Herod orders Jesus’ assassination, but he does so only after seeking the guidance of “all the chief priests and teachers of the law,” who reaffirm what he had already feared: Jesus is born from the true line of the expected Messiah-King. Strangely, the religious leaders declare to Herod that Jesus is the true king, but not one visits Jesus.

They’re not looking to upset the status quo. The religious leaders of the day “had aligned themselves politically with Herod. If his power base were threatened, so was theirs” (NIV Archaeological Study Bible, Matt. 2). 

Bound up in their own pursuits — and with a freshly rebuilt Jerusalem temple thanks to King Herod — they missed the miracle of Epiphany.

The miracle is that what began as an assassination attempt resulted in the first conversions recorded in the gospel of Matthew: foreign diviners “overwhelmed with joy” when they see Jesus, becoming Jesus’ first worshippers. 

These foreign diviners from the East — Jesus’ first visitors, per Matthew — were likely not highly regarded, nor were they the first visitors recorded in other versions of the Christmas story.  In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first visitors were shepherds, about whom Aristotle wrote, “the laziest are [the] shepherds, who lead an idle life, and get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals.” 

These were Jesus’ first worshippers: foreigners and shepherds. The irony of Epiphany represents the great tension in our Christian faith today: the Christmas news of Jesus’ birth is most readily welcomed by outsiders, and we don’t have many outsiders in our churches. That means it’s easy for us church-going types to miss today’s epiphanies. 

So consider joining me in my renewed Epiphany resolution this year: giving cash to the homeless. The act isn’t just about meeting the real needs of the homeless, but about opening our eyes. Unhardening our hearts. Refusing to believe the worst about people. Believing the most insignificant act can be swept up into something much bigger. 

This might be the most important thing I will do today: slowing down on the US-23 South off-ramp, greeting Bobby by name, giving her ten dollars, shaking her hand, and asking about her day.

There’s so much more to do. But we can start with Epiphany. 

Header photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Nathan Groenewold

Nathan Groenewold is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and founding director of Cohort Detroit, a ministry which aims to raise up a new generation of young leaders who love God deeply, work for justice, and humbly serve marginalized Detroit communities. He fills the cracks in his summers with disc golf and gardening. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. But then also what about the panhandlers who are not technically homeless? In many neighborhoods those are whom you’re more likely to encounter. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn it was 50/50, but they all called themselves “homeless.” I finally came around to accepting that marketing strategy on their part as legitimate, considering the power issues involved, the realities of what they faced everyday anyway, despite having (or refusing) a stable bedroom, and the fact that the product they were selling on the sidewalk was the good and generous feelings of their donors / customers. “Go for it, guys!” For myself, I didn’t use to give them money, I bought them their sandwiches, coffee, rotisserie chicken (for Derek), and Dr. Pepper (for Noel, aka “Big.”) All of them suffered the long term effects of imprisonment, the punishment that keeps on punishing. The greater tragedy is that the “truly ” homeless, mostly women and children, are far less skilled or successful at soliciting money. They haven’t learned how successfully to be seen, i.e., profitably to objectify themselves. Again, that depends on the neighborhood.

  • Sarina Gruver Moore says:

    I love this, Nathan. And thank you for directing me to Kate’s essay as well (missed it when it was posted).

    I’ve also shifted my thinking about giving cash directly to the unhoused, and I now try to have cash on me so I can do so regularly. I would also love to see a universal basic income (UBI) and permanent, free housing for folks, too.

    I will confess, though, that when I am home in the PNW there are areas of Seattle I avoid walking through because there are so many tent encampments, and many people living there are experiencing severe mental illness. I really don’t know what the answer is in Seattle, San Fransisco, Portland…

    • Nathan Groenewold says:

      Thank you for reading this, Sarina. It’s a delight to see your comment. And yes, this is a piece written within my current Detroit & Ann Arbor context, and as someone who still calls Washington home, the complexity of what an individual act means in a problem so big is, well, complex!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    As my husband and I have come to understand and see the extreme need for food, shelter, and security that we take so for granted, volunteering regularly in a local pantry warehouse, we have made a conscious decision to try and live with open hands: to see those on the corner without judgement or suspicion, giving them money as a gift that they may use in whatever way benefits them the most at that moment in their lives. I’m sure someone else coined the phrase, but we refer to it as being a ‘fool for Christ’.

    • Nathan Groenewold says:

      Thank you for reading, Jan, and for sharing these thoughts. I think your decision “to live with open hands” is such a profound (and profoundly difficult) thing.

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