The number of homeless people has been on the rise for the last ten years or so. It used to be that you only saw them in the inner parts of the city; now you see them in suburbia. On several occasions, I have seen frantic men standing at the exits to shopping malls with home-made cardboard signs: “I have hungry children! Need money, food, any kind of work!”
The more you see things like that the more insulated you become. The first time, you are moved to compassion perhaps, or maybe the sort of get-a-job resentment that is fashionable these days. Eventually, you become comfortable with your convictions and these people fade into the background. You ignore them like television commercials and billboards.
But one weekend I saw such a man, and I was convinced by the sight that I am as heartless as I am rich, and as sinful as I am pampered. I came away from the experience seriously questioning my conduct and my attitude towards such people.
For you see, we were leaving Springfield Mall (not the one in the Simpsons cartoon television series, the one in Springfield, Virginia) and I was seated on the passenger side of the car. Traffic was heavy, as it always is, and I noticed a man walking up the sidewalk on my side of the road. He was tall and thin, wearing brown pants and a yellow shirt that betrayed that he spent a lot of time out doors. He had a cardboard sign hanging around his neck, and so I figured that it was just another beggar. I ignored him, but he remained in my field of view even as I looked straight forward.
The car inched up in traffic. The light had cycled through green, but we were only able to get closer to the intersection. I continued to watch the man out of the corner of my eye as he walked up the sidewalk with his cardboard sign. When he reached the intersection, he turned around and walked back.
I let out an involuntary gasp at the sight! Instantly my complacence was transformed to rage and my indifference to compassion! I struggled with tears even as anger welled up within me at the injustice of the society in which I live, that such a man would have to beg for money in traffic. My heart ached within me and I choked on my tears! How can I possibly convey to you the sudden ocean of emotion that overtook me so suddenly, which revisits me even now? I was completely undone by what I saw!
Suddenly it was as if I was in the disapproving presence of my Lord who commanded me to help this man. So as the car lurched gradually forward, I took mental inventory of my wallet. Did I have a twenty, or just a five? Could I give him all the bills I had and refresh my wallet later at an ATM? As if under divine command, I frantically grabbed for my wallet and reached for the door handle. I called the driver’s attention to the man on the sidewalk, but there was no time. My reflexes were too slow. My Christian virtues had rusted and could not swing into action in time. It all happened within a fleeting second! The light turned green and the driver, not seeing the man by the side of the road, stomped on the gas and we sped forward. I was left with the awkward task of closing the door as we whizzed through the intersection. My heart sank within me as the man grew smaller behind me, forever lost to my intended charity, forever obscure and unreachable.
O Lord, I have sinned! I have most grievously sinned against you! How kind and gracious you are to have mercy on a sinner like me, who has prosperous ease and luxury, yet did not share it with your little lamb in distress by the side of the road.
Why was I so moved? Why was I so frantic the moment the man turned on the sidewalk and started walking towards me? It wasn’t his sign. That was a tattered piece of brown cardboard torn from a large box, hung around his neck on a string. All it said was “I am hungry I need money” in childish block letters, as if he had written it with a pen held between his toes. It wasn’t his appearance, for he did not look undernourished, and he appeared to have recently bathed. It wasn’t the plastic cup he had, half-full with donations. It wasn’t the expression on his face, which was tired, but pleasant. It wasn’t that he was inadequately dressed, because it was a warm day.
It was the way he held the cup that moved me, the way he held it under his chin. I couldn’t see it while he was walking away from me, but when he turned to walk the other direction down the sidewalk, facing me, I saw him and I recognized him as one of Jesus’ little lambs whom I was sent to serve.
For you see, this man had no arms, just useless little stubs, enough fill out a short-sleeved shirt.
And the Word of the Lord came to me:
Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer Him, saying “Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothe you? And when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?” And the King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”