I care a lot about the poor, homeless, and hungry; you just wouldn’t be able to tell if you watched me interact with them.
I try to be honest and live a life of integrity. And I generally feel like I do a pretty good job of that; not amazing, perhaps, certainly not perfect, but pretty good. And yet, every time I meet a homeless person on the street, and he asks me for money, I look him in the eyes and lie through my teeth. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money,” I say unconvincingly as I walk away with change jingling in my pocket. And every time, it breaks my heart.
Jesus told a story in the Bible. It went something like this:
A few years ago, there was a man who worked on Wall Street as a stock broker. He’d made quite a bit of money for himself, but, you know how these things go. The economy collapses, the stock market takes a plunge, and all of a sudden his wife divorces him, his too-expensive house forecloses, he’s racked up credit card debt, and then he’s out on the street, homeless.
Well, late one night, as he’s out begging for money, or food, or something to ease his pain and take his mind off of things (he wouldn’t say no to a little alcohol), a gang of teenagers stumbles across him. They try to rob him, but since he doesn’t have any money, they just beat on him for a while; then they gang-rape him and leave him for dead.
The man isn’t dead, but he’s in a bad way; just a heap on the sidewalk. Looks like any other homeless guy from a distance, though. In the wee hours of the morning, on his way to a sixteen-hour day where he’s desperate to keep his job, a rich big-shot lawyer drives by in his BMW. He glances out of the window as he’s yelling at his secretary, sees the homeless man on the sidewalk and thinks to himself, “Fucking hobo. When is this city going to clean up its trash, anyways?” He grimaces angrily and steps on the gas, accelerating through the red light at the next intersection.
A few hours later a cop drives by on his way to investigate a domestic abuse report. He sees the guy on the sidewalk; he’s not completely sure, but he thinks something isn’t right with him. Is he even breathing? The cop drives on; he doesn’t have time to deal with this right now, the lady on the phone seemed pretty distraught. Plus, what if the homeless guy is dead? He’d have to call it in, file a report, wait for the coroner to get there… No, better to just let someone else deal with it.
Finally, after the sun has been up for about an hour, a gay black man walks by, sees the homeless guy with blood running down his shirt. The gay man immediately flags down a taxi, shoulders the homeless man into the cab, and takes him to the Ritz-Carlton. Once there, the gay man carries the homeless guy into the hotel, and says to concierge, “Here’s $10,000; put this man up in your penthouse suite until I get back. Get him a doctor — the best doctor you can find! — and take care of him. Make sure he’s well-fed, and that he doesn’t want for anything, and I will fully reimburse you for any extra expenses that you incur upon my return.
Now, of the three men — the gay guy, the cop, or the lawyer — which one showed love to the homeless man?
OK, so I paraphrased this a bit. You might know the story more commonly as the story of the good Samaritan. And I apologize if the story was a bit dark, but I honestly don’t believe that Jesus intended his version to be light and happy. And while Jesus was using it to make a point about how to show love to other humans, I also see a story about how we are to treat those who are poor, or hungry, or homeless. Jesus also said, “The poor you will always have with you,” and commanded me to care for them.
But I don’t. Not in the raw, visceral way that the good Samaritan demands of me. I’m great at coming up with all kinds of excuses — I can’t give the beggar money, because I’ll just enable his alcoholism. If I pull out my wallet to give him money, then he’ll just rob me; maybe he’ll even murder me! I need the money for something else, I can’t spare any for him. I don’t have time to help him, I’m busy doing something else. All of these excuses have some validity to them, some truth.
And yet, Jesus commands me to love people; not just the people I am comfortable with. Not just my friends. But everyone; the poor, hungry, and homeless people who haven’t showered in weeks and maybe are a little rough around the edges.
I really don’t know how to deal with this. I spend a lot of time thinking about it, about how I can respond to people. And, in fact, I try to be generous in other ways that I know benefit the poor and homeless. I make donations to food banks (though less often than I’d like to), I donate my old clothes and shoes to the Goodwill or Salvation Army, I donate money to homeless shelters when they ask for it… And yet, I could do more. I could be more direct. I could take them to lunch so that they don’t just spend money on alcohol. I could be willing to part with a few dollars, even if it makes me nervous. I could… I could… But instead, I avoid. I avoid areas where I know homeless people are; if I have to go into those areas, I avoid the bodies; if I can’t avoid the bodies, I avoid eye contact; if I can’t avoid eye contact, I avoid listening to their begging; if I can’t avoid listening, I lie to their faces. And it breaks my heart. Every. Single. Time.