[Listen to Audio] Some friends had just treated Joy and me to dinner in an upscale restaurant in a large urban setting. On the way to the parking deck, I glimpsed a man holding a toddler in one arm and a bit of cardboard with handwriting on it in his free hand.
The light was muted and the man was at a little distance, so I couldn’t read the message on the makeshift sign. But I knew that he was asking for help.
Nobody else in the group saw the two of them. I let the group’s momentum and the rest of the pedestrian traffic sweep me on toward the car.
And I regretted it. I still do.
Yes, in many of our urban settings you will pass several people looking for relief on each and every block. You could empty your wallet by the time you’ve walked the length of a football field. And those same people would probably be hungry and homeless the very next day.
And I’ve heard my share of transparently lame stories told to explain a needy person’s predicament and to open my wallet. But I also know that, if I were desperate enough, I would do or say just about anything to feed my hungry child and to find a safe place for her to spend the night.
My encounter with this homeless father happened over a matter of seconds. But I’ve reflected on it again and again. Jesus’ words keep coming back to me. “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) In other words, let your works reveal the healing love of God to the world.
On that evening, I was a dim bulb.
Or, to put that another way, Jesus reminded me yet again of the wall that surrounds me. I’ve erected a barrier to protect myself from the sorrows and the sufferings, the loneliness and the fear, the degradations and the deprivations of others.
My wall consists largely of the blind eye that comes with self-absorption. Some build their walls from callousness or condescension. Reasoning that anyone struggling or down on their luck got themselves in that fix, they feel relieved of the responsibility to show compassion.
Repurposing a phrase from the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, following Jesus is a continuous process of scaling the empathy wall. When we follow Jesus, we grow in compassion. The ache of the world can no longer be someone else’s tough luck. The misery of anyone weighs upon our own souls.
That’s because God sent Jesus in order to be one with us. And in Jesus, we are inextricably one with each another.
Jesus came to heal us. To make us whole from sin and suffering, from sorrow and loneliness, from degradation and deprivation. The healing work of the Incarnate God continues through you and me.
We are the Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit animates us and sends us out to streets and shelters, schools and prisons, shops and rehab centers, offices and abandoned lots to be conduits of Christ’s healing love.
Believing in Jesus means to surrender ourselves to what Jesus is up to in this world. And what Jesus is up to is loving imperfect, broken, and hurting people. Love is no mere sentiment. Love is a focused, relentless power committed to the dignity and well-being of every human being.
The prophet Isaiah put it like this:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Sharing a meal, providing shelter for a night, giving a coat or a pair of shoes, paying for a prescription, or covering a utility bill shows mercy to individuals. And this is a good thing. And yet, hunger and homelessness will return the next day. Healthcare will remain out of reach for the next illness.
Jesus teaches us to dream bigger. In Jesus, God is renewing the entire creation. God’s dream is a new heaven and a new earth shining with perfect justice and unbroken peace. A creation in which human dignity is never diminished and God’s love cannot be doubted because its presence is undeniable in how we love one another.
In other words, Jesus teaches us to change the world. Ronald Rolheiser makes the point by sharing a familiar but still important story. It’s called the Parable of the River. These are Rolhesier’s own words:
Once upon a time there was a town which was built beyond the bend in a river. One day some of its children were playing by the river when they spotted 3 bodies floating in the water. They ran to get help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies from the river.
One body was dead so they buried it. One was alive, but quite ill, so they put it into the hospital. The third was a healthy child, so they placed it in a family who cared for it and took it to school.
From that day on, each day a number of bodies came floating around the bend in the river and, each day, the good charitable townspeople pulled them out and tended to them – burying the dead, caring for the sick, finding homes for the children, and so on.
This went on for years, and the townspeople came to expect that each day would bring its quota of bodies … but, during those years, nobody thought to walk up the river, beyond the bend, and check out why, daily, those bodies came floating down the river.
Jesus is urging us to go up the river. Yes, help the hungry, the addicted, the sick, and the homeless who come to our doorsteps and wander our streets. But do not stop there.
Ask deeper, more difficult questions. For instance:
What is it about our common lives that leaves us with phrases like “the working poor?” People who work full time and scramble after overtime wages should be able to pay their bills, put their kids through college, and receive competent medical care. And yet, a staggering number of working people are one sickness or one crisis away from homelessness.
What are we doing in the Land of the Free that gives us the largest prison population in the world? We have more people behind bars than even Russian and China.
The compassion of God in Jesus is a world-transforming power. Let’s share it with everyone who crosses our path. And let’s take it up the river.