Wherever you live, you’ve seen them, lying on park benches, standing on the roadside, sitting on street corners, easily identified by disheveled hair, baggy clothes, and bad teeth: the homeless. Maybe you’ve also been one of those people who walk in the opposite direction, lock your car door or roll up your window, at the mere sight of someone holding a sign reading, “God bless,” as if the words written in Sharpie on the bent piece of cardboard were an imprecation rather than a benediction. I’ve seen someone reach for a concealed weapon at the mere approach of a homeless man.
“You always have the poor with you,” Jesus said (Matt. 26:11). Some Christians seem to have taken the Lord’s words as a challenge to prove Him wrong through various relief efforts; others have resigned them to their fate. For as much ardor as the Church seems to have for involvement in worldly politics, many of her number would just as soon leave the poor and the downtrodden to themselves, invoking other gods like self-determination, self-preservation, or the invisible hand of the market. But none of these have anything to do with the God who is the Father of the fatherless and the protector of widows (Psalm 68:5), whose Son became poor for our sakes (II Cor. 8:9).
That’s the God we confess, before whom we piously call ourselves poor miserable sinners, but what is it that we’re really confessing when we scramble for the locks on our car doors, our guns, our excuses for saving our own skins and our own goods at the expense of those who have nothing? We’re admitting that we know full well that what we have could just as easily and effortlessly be snatched from us as was the wealth of those now bereft of everything. We betray just how weak, helpless, scared, and impoverished we truly are. We’re afraid that God, who has promised to provide for all our needs, is actually a tyrant who cruelly and capriciously takes our rightful possessions from us. Perhaps we also fear the poor because in them we see our own poverty.
If that’s really the case, then we’re poor miserable sinners indeed. But because that is the reality of our plight, we are in good company. The Son of Man, who had nowhere to lay His head (Luke 9:58), became poor and miserable for us. In laying aside everything, including His very life, He became even less than the most destitute vagrant – He became nothing (Phil. 2:7).
By becoming the victim of every injustice and misfortune, by allowing Himself to be murdered by the affluent, falling among thieves and robbers, and making His grave with the wicked, Jesus became the neighbor we are to love according to the Great Commandment. In the suffering and bruised countenance of God in the flesh, executed like the greatest of criminals, we realize that where Jesus ends and the neediest of our neighbors begins is intentionally ambiguous: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).
The distinction between our Lord who has redeemed us and our neighbor whom we are bound to serve is blurred by the blood of Jesus. Encountering the poor is not an aberration in our otherwise comfortable middle-class lives, but is an encounter with Jesus Himself and with people who are not panhandlers, bums, or addicts — they’re our neighbors.
So when you come face-to-face with the poor, it won’t matter what you think of welfare, humanitarian aid, or vagrancy laws. You are free from your anxiety about the stuff to which you try to cling and your own poverty. None of God’s children will be left as orphans. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Our heavenly Father can’t be out-given. As lord of all in Christ the conqueror, you are free to be the servant of all. Having lost our old lives of sin and death with Christ and having been raised with Him, we have nothing to lose.
Timothy Sheridan is a member of Our Savior Lutheran in Raleigh, NC.