Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Least of These

I've been troubled for several days over something that happened last weekend in Chicago. When Angela and I were waiting for the subway, a man approached us and asked if we could help him (i.e. give him some money).

This is not the first time such a thing has happened to me, but there was something different about this man. He had a genteel, respectful manner. He stood a few feet away and, in a soft-spoken voice, told us that he had fallen on hard times and had been living in the subway a few weeks.

He said something like, "I know I look dirty and I probably smell, but I haven't had a way to take a shower down here. I don't want to make you feel threatened, so I'll stand back here away from you. You look like nice ladies, and I can see that you are traveling. If there's any way that you could help me, I'd be really grateful."

I hesitated for a moment. I really, really wanted to help him, but I looked sorrowfully in his eyes and said, "I had a dollar bill, but I just gave it to that man playing the guitar." That was true in a sense, but really it was a lie. The truth is, I also had a five dollar bill that I could have easily spared. So it wasn't the money. It also wasn't that I thought he was lying and didn't need the money; maybe he was lying, but he really seemed genuine. Besides, whenever I've felt prompted to give money to people, I've never worried over what they would do with the money. I always feel that I'm giving the money to God, and once I've been obedient, it really doesn't matter what happens next.

No, in this case, the truth was that I was afraid. I remembered all the times I'd been told not to give money to people on the street--that when you open your purse or your wallet, the person might grab it and run away. Worse yet, he might grab you and hurt you. In my gut, I didn't feel he was a threat, and I really wanted to help him. But I just couldn't take the risk.

He hung his head and walked away, and in a moment we boarded the train. I asked Angela what she'd thought of his story, and she said she had not been able to hear what he was saying. With all our stress over making it to the airport on time, I quickly forgot the incident.

Two days later, at Bible study, we talked about our mission as Christians. We studied Matthew 25, in which Jesus says that when we don't help the needy, it's like we've turned our back on Jesus himself:

34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

I immediately thought of my encounter with the man in the subway, and my heart was pierced. Here was an opportunity to show love to a stranger, and I'd missed it! Since then, I've thought of that man often. I wish I could go back and do it again. I'd like to hand him the $5, or even the whole $25 if God so prompted me, and say, "God loves you, and so do I."

Now, all I can do is pray for him, and ask God to help me do better the next time. I want to be able to hear God's voice clearly and respond; when God tells me to do something, I know I can trust that he will take care of me.


Melissa Irwin said...

I have been in this same situation and I have beaten myself up too. No doubt it is difficult to know how to act when caught off guard, and when safety is a concern. Your heart is tender and loving. You are listening for God and seeking discernment. You are doing well! Don't be hard on yourself any longer.

Sarah said...

Thank you, Melissa. That is a message I always need to hear.

Mindy said...

I deal with this on a daily basis here in Austin. Being here over a year now and living in a much better part of town, I've just grown accustomed to it and it's not bad where I live now. Half the time, you can't tell if the people are really homeless or if they're the people out getting rich pretending to be a starving and homeless person. Also, some of them look so scary that I don't want to roll down my window and stick my hand out towards them. I give money every once in awhile still but last year, every time I would leave my apartment, at every stop light you would get hassled so I just had to learn to keep my head straight and pretend like I don't notice them. One of these days I'm just going to start keeping job applications in my car and just hand that to them.

@PrayerChristian said...

Thank you for posting this and for sharing your thoughts on facing this challenge in your life. I suspect many of us have dealt with the same dilemma: What do we do when confronted with people on the street asking for money? Each of these men and women is a son or daughter of our God, and at the same time we are told so many messages like those you've shared.

What's the answer? I think it's important to think it through and to seek God's will. Thank you for prompting me to give thought to this dilemma.

Sarah said...

Thanks for visiting my blog, PrayerChristian! Here's the sequel to this story:


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