Have you ever hidden a Pop-Tart from a homeless person? I have.
My wife and I lived in New Orleans for several years where homelessness was common and visible. On a typical drive to work, I found myself daily having a close encounter with a homeless person asking for money at traffic light. What do you do with those awkward moments while stopped at the red light as a visibly needy person stands close to your car or makes eye contact with you? Some days I had cash to give. Other days, I had other useful items that I thought would help in their plight. Some days I did not know what to do that could help. Some days I simply had the breakfast in my hand. Some days I chose the route of avoidance—staring directly ahead, avoiding eye contact and slipping my Pop-Tart out of sight.
Many who read the paragraph above will be troubled that I hid my breakfast from a hungry person. You should be. I am.
Others will be more troubled that I ever gave money to a “panhandler who will buy who knows what” with it. But I’m always brought back down to earth by a statement from one of our homeless neighbors who was befriended and became part of our church, “No one plans to be addicted to heroin and living under the overpass.” Homelessness in an urban setting is a complex issue, and homeless people’s stories are complex.
Some things about this world make me feel uneasy. I assume you too feel it deep in your soul. Something is “off” in the world. Some things just don’t feel right. Something is broken. Do you feel it—when you see a whole family walking home carrying their groceries? When you see images or hear stories of orphanages? When you visit an elderly person in hospice care,? When you see the tents under the overpass? When your addicted nephew is sent away again or when you meet someone utterly alone? What you feel is a longing for everything to be made right again. I believe that longing comes from the Creator, and we should not numb our hearts so that we never have to feel it.
Jesus told a parable in Matthew 25 contrasting two ways people have dealt with “the least” (i.e. the hurting, needy, vulnerable in society) in their lifetime. Jesus clearly condemned one way and applauded another: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
I don’t find any escapes hatches or any qualifications in Jesus’ words. In fact, if you are follower of Jesus, you know Jesus is directing our lives to tangibly tell the gospel story. Our lives are meant to identify and take the shape of our Savior who came to us when we were hungry, thirsty, naked, poor, and strangers to God, and reversed our fortunes eternally through His death on the cross and His resurrection.
How do we love “the least”?
Make eye contact. Roll the window down. Give the Pop-Tart.
Ultimately, we take our cues from Jesus. We really don’t have to guess what Jesus would do because we know what Jesus did. He moved toward broken sinners at their worst to lift them and to right what was wrong by His mercy. The first step for us is to move toward brokenness when we see it.
Dr. Marshall Henderson, pastor at FBC Fort Payne, AL