Matthew 5:42. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
He points to three ways that the Christians should suffer with regard to their temporal possessions: they should let them be taken away from them, they should be happy to lend them, and they should give them away. Here the current teaching50 did not go beyond the secular and imperial law, which does not tell you to give your property away to someone else or to let him take it away from you. It only teaches you how to manage and do business with your property so that you get a good return on it by your buying, selling, and trading. Now, Christ is not preaching about this. He leaves the division of property and business to the teaching of reason. But He points to the three things that a Christian ought to have beyond all this: he should let things be taken away from him, either by force or under the pretext of the law; he should be happy to give them away; and he should be happy to lend them. Here again we must distinguish between secular law and the teaching of Christ. According to secular law you may use your possessions, do business with them, buy them and sell them. Thus we read that the holy patriarchs had business dealings with money and property just as other people do,51 just as everyone must do if he is to live in human society and support his wife and children. All this belongs to a life where the stomach has its rights, too; and it is just as necessary as eating and drinking.
But Christ teaches you in addition that you should still be willing to let everything be taken away from you, and do so gladly, doing good or contributing or lending where you can, and submitting to violence not only with regard to your property but also with regard to your life, as was said in the preceding text. Especially should you be willing to do so for the sake of the Lord Christ, if you are threatened on account of the Gospel. In such a case you should be willing to surrender not only your coat but your cloak as well, not only your property and reputation but even your very life. Where this is the case, you need not hesitate; for that matter, it is quite rare that there is another case. In other cases, involving secular affairs and the secular realm, you have the opportunity to appeal to judges and to the law if you have suffered injustice or violence, and to seek redress through them. But if you cannot secure justice or protection, then you have to suffer, just as even the non-Christians have to suffer.
But here we must be careful not to give rogues and rascals the chance to take advantage of this doctrine and to declare: “The Christians have to stand for anything. Therefore it is all right to lay hands on their property, to take it and steal it. A Christian has the obligation to throw the door open on everything he has, to give or lend as much as any impudent scoundrel may ask for without demanding it back.” That was how that miserable apostate, Emperor Julian, made fun of this text.52 He took whatever he wanted from the Christians, saying that he wanted to pay them in their own coin. No, my dear fellow, you have it wrong. It is, of course, true that Christians should be ready to put up with anything. But when you come before the judge or fall into the hands of the executioner, watch and see what you will have to put up with from him! A Christian has to be ready to endure whatever you and everyone else may do to him, but he is not obliged to let your whims run riot all over him if he can prevent it by appealing to the law and by seeking the help of the government. Although the government may refuse to protect him or may itself become guilty of violence, he is not obliged to keep quiet on that account as though he had to sanction such procedure.
So it is here, too. He should be willing to lend and give to everyone who asks him. Yet if he knows that this is a scoundrel, he is not obliged to give it to him. Christ is not telling me to give what I have to any scoundrel that comes along and to deprive my family of it or others who may need it and whom I am obliged to help, and then to suffer want myself and become a burden to others. He is not saying that we should give and lend to everybody, but “to him who begs from us,” that is, to the one who really needs it, not to the one who develops a whim that he would like to take something from us by force; such people are well off enough already, or they want to support themselves at other people’s expense, without working. Therefore it is important to be careful here and to ascertain what sort of people there may be in a city, who there is poor and badly off and who is not, rather than to let in any vagrant or tramp who is not in need and could very well support himself. There are plenty of such people roaming around the country nowadays, whom I would call Squire Filth. They would like to take advantage of this teaching and use it to have a good time with other people’s possessions until they are all used up, wandering around from one place to another. Such people should be turned over to the police and taught something different, instead of deceiving pious folk with their mischief.
This is what St. Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 8:13: He is asking the Corinthians for a contribution to the poor Christians in the famine, but he does not mean that on account of it “others should be eased and you burdened,” that is, that they should have toil and trouble and be in want themselves in order to let their possessions make the other people happy. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6–13 he gives the Christians this command: they should keep away from those who live in idleness, and each one should do his work in quietness, eating his own bread and not burdening other people; and he concludes that “if anyone will not work, let him not eat.” Therefore, whoever is able to work should know it is God’s command that he do something to support himself, rather than burdening other people. There are still plenty of needy people, and there is plenty of lending and giving to do anyway; as the Scriptures say (Deut. 15:11): “The poor will never cease out of the land.” Therefore we should not do our lending and giving in such a way that we fling our gifts away into the wind and do not look to see who is getting them. First we should open our eyes to determine who it is—whether he is “begging,” as Christ says here, that is, whether he is in need and is asking properly, or whether he is a fraud or a scamp.
For this you need to employ your secular person, to be prudent in your contacts with other people, to recognize the poor, and to see the kind of people with whom you are dealing and those to whom you should or should not give. Then if you see that it is a genuine seeker, open your hand and lend it to him if he can pay you back. But if he cannot, then give it to him free, and call the account square. There are pious people who would like to work and to support themselves, with their wife and children, but who can never prosper and must occasionally get into debt and difficulty. For the benefit of such people every city should have its common treasury and alms, and it should have church officials to determine who these people are and how they live, so as not to let any of the lazy bums become a burden to other people.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:115). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.