(Originally posted on July 27, 2012)
What do we hate most about the homeless? In a word – they’re “inconvenient.” They show up in our lives in the most awkward places. Unless we’re on our guard they can shake our complacency to its core. Why can’t they just stay out of sight, go live in a shelter, get a job, or, at the very least, stand with their signs somewhere else? Who believes they’re really needy anyway? They probably have a nice car parked around the corner that we paid for! Or, if we do give them our measly change, they’ll probably use it for drugs or alcohol.
By the way, I’ve never bought drugs, but I’m pretty sure they cost more than a few coins from the bottom of your purse. Now, as for alcohol, if Boones Farm Strawberry Hill wine is still on the market, that’s probably pretty affordable. At least, it was for me so many years ago. But that’s a story for another day.
So, yesterday, I came to a stoplight at a highway exit. I missed the light and was forced to sit uncomfortably, making every effort to disregard the homeless woman on the corner. It was 104° in the shade, and the light took forever to change! I chose to ignore her because she’s there a lot, and I have given her money in the past. I didn’t feel obliged to give her anything this time.
Finally, I pulled away and went straight to Panera Bread for lunch. Panera Bread is my favorite place to eat, next to home. I always get the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette on the side. I can no longer eat their lovely whole grain baguettes because I am gluten intolerant. Sad, huh? Poor me…poor, poor pitiful me.
Anyway, as I looked down at my lovely salad, the guilt was so immense I could barely get it down. I was reminded of my most humbling encounter with the homeless woman in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2005. And yet, here I was again, confronted with my hardness of heart, listening remorsefully to God’s admonishments and offering my feeble response, “I’m so sorry, Lord. I did it again. I am so sorry!”
I packed up my salad, got in my car, and prayed as I drove toward the overpass where she stood, “Please be there, please be there!” She was still there! You would think I won the lottery! I quickly drove up the highway ramp, exited, got back on the highway, and exited again where she was standing, all the while, digging in my purse for money. $10? No! This was at least a $20 transgression. Yes, $20. Like God would be more impressed with that. I’m a moron!
This time, when the light turned red, there were four cars in front of me. I threw my car in park, got out, and ran to her (she was limping so badly the first time, I didn’t want her to have to hobble up the hill. I felt bad enough as it was). I handed her the money, hugged her sweaty, dirty body, returned the blessing she offered me first, and ran back to my car, which, by then, was blocking traffic.
Now, I know what you may be thinking, “You’re such a sucker, Linda! It was all an act and the limp was fake”. Maybe that’s true, but here’s the thing. I don’t give a rip if it was all staged for effect and God doesn’t either. He only wants to know where our hearts are. Then, he wants to dig in there and transform them if we allow him to.
Not surprisingly, this lesson was just beginning. They say life repeats its lessons over and over until we get them. And I am, hands down, to God’s dismay, the world’s slowest learner. This, clearly, was going to require some additional work and God was happy to oblige.
On the same evening of my encounter with the smelly likes of Jesus, I attended a gathering of old high school friends. Those encounters always include the ones we never liked and I had the misfortune of sitting next to one of them. She was still as crabby and mean as she was then with some additional flab and wrinkles – which secretly delighted me.
I hate to call myself out on this, but it’s pertinent to this story. Please don’t judge me, I do enough of that on my own. Anyway, one of my honest-to-goodness friends asked me how my work with the homeless for St. Vincent dePaul was going (I know, busted!). Well, this woman with no filter, began to spew her indignation toward those nasty homeless people who have the nerve, the nerve, to interrupt her life! If, if, she was going to give any of them money she wanted to control what they did with it. Great!
I sat and listened to her rail against them and mumbled under my breath, “Lord, really? Did you set this up? It would be just like you! Fine. Can I get a beer, because this is going to take a while, isn’t it? By the way, have I said how sorry I am that we have to revisit my cold, hard indifference to those you love so deeply?
I would soon have an hour’s drive home to ponder it all, in particular, my hesitation to discuss it with that woman at our meeting (she’s not really my friend anyway) The words God spoke to my heart penetrated my very soul, “Woe to you, Linda. You hypocrite! Don’t even think about judging her!” Right, okay, I have no right to judge anyone. But, what I wanted to say to her – I needed to hear myself. So here it goes…
We have our favorite defenses against helping the homeless. The most common seem to be:
- I can’t help everyone.
- It’s not my responsibility.
- I want to know what they are going to do with the money.
- They’re lazy, they need to get a job.
- Or, my all-time favorite: Let’s put it on God. – “LORD, WHY DO YOU ALLOW THIS, WHY DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING?!”
The next morning, I tried to sit quietly in prayer (I’m warning you, don’t do that unless you are prepared for your life to change forever!). God showed up! As I considered the reasons we hold our clenched fists so tightly around our measly handful of change, I had a picture of a long line of homeless people standing in front of me. Each one approached and stood there as I grilled them to determine if they were worthy of my precious coins. Most I would usher off to the right, UNDESERVING. Very few would I send to the left, DESERVING, where I would hand them a few paltry tokens and expect their undying gratitude.
Then, I saw Jesus standing there. Now I was in line – a line that stretched beyond my field of vision. I watched as each person approached him in trembling anticipation. But, it wasn’t money he was handing out, it was grace.
Most, he would ruthlessly question, “What have you done to deserve this? What will you do with it? Why should I give it to you?” – and then gesture to the right, UNDESERVING. A few would be sent to the left and showered with more grace and blessings than they could stuff in their pockets! I quickly got out of line and ran home to get a suitcase, certain I was going to the left and prepared to capture all the blessings Jesus would bestow on me. I was pumped!
Finally, I reached the front of the line and without hesitation, Jesus looked at my pathetic life and gestured to the right, UNDESERVING. Slumped over in disbelief, dragging my empty suitcase behind me, I followed the long line of the unworthy masses. (I’m a visual person – I hate when God uses “Loser Linda” parables in vivid pictures!)
Even claiming to be Christian, we live our lives in the realm of the worthy vs. the unworthy. It defines who we are, who our neighbors are, who the poor and destitute are, and we act accordingly. When we can muster just a smathering (yes, I made that word up. I like it!) of concern for others we raise our voice to the heavens in outrage, “Lord, I don’t know how you can just sit there and watch your people, especially children, suffer.”
What we fail to remember is that God came into our midst to reveal a different reality. He gives and gives abundantly. He forgives profusely, even my sorry self. Not one of us is deserving. We ask for his mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and it is ours. There are no lines to stand in. There is no reason to doubt or fear. The abundance of God’s grace is beyond measure. The riches of his generosity have no limits. But, we, like the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35), quickly forget.
Jesus came to serve. He commissioned his disciples to “feed My sheep”. In Matthew’s gospel (14:13-21) five thousand people converged on Jesus. His disciples, aware they had brought no food, insisted he send them home to feed themselves. And what was Jesus’ reply? “You feed them.” God provided…and all the people were given their fill, with food to spare.
You feed them. You do it!
The fact that there are people starving and dying every day, and have been for time eternal, is not because of poor planning on God’s part. It’s because many of us who have been given much (Luke 12:48), give little in return. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
Listen, if God’s intent was to have a perfect human race, where no one suffered, and no one was capable of the atrocities we witness almost daily, he could have just hard-wired us to obey him completely. Problem solved. Not quite. God did not want robots. He deeply loved humankind and wanted that love returned – voluntarily.
The love God calls us to, by definition, requires us to love everyone. And loving them means caring for them, feeding them, giving generously from our abundance of blessings. And, for the love of God, stop judging them! We are Christ’s hands and feet in this broken world, they should be moving.
And lastly, I thank you, you beautiful woman on the street corner, for showing me Christ!