An old rabbi, almost penniless himself, lived in a small town in Russia. If ever a beggar asked him for money, he would always oblige, even if it was only a tiny amount. One day, his grandson asked him, “Grandpa, don’t you think those people are just fooling you, that they don’t actually need the money?” “Let that be on their conscience, not yours,” the rabbi replied.
A fat man tucking into his coffee and pastry, refusing to give money to a homeless man, is the antithesis of the old rabbi.
I was sitting with my daughter at a table outside a café this morning when this scene unfolded. The homeless man had been engrossed in a book, standing on the pavement. When he came to himself he asked us rather shyly if he might have some money for his breakfast. I gave him £2. He went to the next café and addressed the Fat Man who, with his mouth full, declined to do so. At the table next to the Fat Man was a fellow I’ve seen before, a great pontificator, who declaims loudly about all sorts of things to whoever will listen. He is middle-aged and very well-spoken but wears beads and has a pony tail (I mention this only to show that he is not precisely the Establishment type, though he sounds like one). He started lecturing the homeless man, saying that he had been homeless himself “for many years” and telling him that instead of begging he should be using his brain to better himself, pull himself together, get a home, get a job etc. The homeless man asked him, politely, not to lecture him and then walked on.
Pontifex Maximus then held forth to the Fat Man, to whom he had previously been talking, along the lines that “these people” were all con artists and fleecing the state and hard-working people such as themselves. He then started discussing how marvellous his Rolex was.
As my daughter and I finished our coffees some 20 minutes later I went over to the Fat Man and put £2 on his table, saying “I heard that you didn’t have enough to spare that homeless fellow anything, so thought I’d make a contribution to your breakfast.” I didn’t wait for his reaction but went inside the café.
About 10 minutes later, Pontifex came in and told me that Fat Man was “marvellously kind and generous”, that I’d caused “a lot of upset” and that I was “out of order”. “I’ll be outside,” was his parting shot. I told him he’d said his piece and was welcome to leave. He left.
I had felt like berating both Fat Man and Pontifex, but what good would that do? Rather than intending a sanctimonious gesture (which I am sure people may accuse me of), I had intended to give the Fat Man pause for thought, so that next time he is asked for money he at least thinks about his actions and does not simply dismiss a fellow human. Even if you agree with Pontifex’s view, you might agree that there are surely more compassionate ways to have expressed it to the intended ‘beneficiary’.
I am put in mind of Orwell’s comment in Homage to Catalonia, “A fat man eating quails while children are begging for bread is a disgusting sight, but you are less likely to see it when you are within the sound of the guns.”