Recently I've been trying this experiment: I've been trying to see Jesus in the homeless people I encounter on the streets. I was thinking about that stuff in Matthew where Jesus talks about feeding and clothing people, caring for people, the scripture that says whenever you do it for the least of these, you do it for me. Every day when I'm downtown for work I run into men and women who look poor and the hungry and sick and homeless and frankly my first instinct is to avoid them like the plague. The are dirty and germ-infested and often muttering to themselves, sometimes angry, potentially crazy and violent. Potentially all con artists just out to make a buck--begging is their 9 to 5 occupation. Like I do advertising.
At any rate, I feel afraid of them, afraid of how needy they are, afraid of getting sucked in, ripped off, pounced on, unsure of how to help, really. Just giving money doesn't seem like any sort of solution. But what is the solution? And truth be told, what I most often feel is "How can I help without really getting involved?"
So lately I've just been trying to tell myself, this guy who stinks and looks like he's been on a several year long drinking binge is Jesus. He's really Jesus in disguise. Listen to him. Care for him.
This all sounds really sweet and pious and uplifting in theory. In practice, not so much.
I was eating lunch at Cosi one day and finished half my sandwich. I wrapped up the other half to take back to the office and put in the fridge there to possibly eat later. I do this quite often, yet I rarely eat the other half of the sandwich, I just leave it there until it gets tossed when they clean out the fridge. Probably green and squishy. But I hate to throw it away. It seems like such a waste of a good sandwich. So on this particular day there was a guy wandering around Cosi asking people for money. As I was packing up to leave he came up to me. Asked for money. I said I had a half a sandwich I could give him. And for some reason I also said, "Would you rather have food or money?" I guess in my head I was doing the math--the half sandwich at Cosi cost about $3. Most people probably give him a dollar. This sandwich was worth more. The man didn't see it that way. I'd rather have the money, he said. And not in a pleasant and/or happy conversational way, I might add. More like a growl. Oh, I said, well a sandwich is what I've got. Do you want it or not? I probably sounded a little testy at this point (versus pleasant and happy) myself. "Well you made it seem like I had a choice. You asked me which I wanted," he complained. "Well, a sandwich is what I've got," I repeated. Oh all right, the guy said, taking my offered sandwich.
He was not thrilled with my gift. I was not in a state of religious (I've just encountered Jesus!) ecstasy either. How was this guy even remotely like Jesus, I wondered? Grumpy and demanding. Picky and questioning ME and my lovely gift... If he was Jesus this is not a side of Jesus I was feeling particularly interested in seeing.
A few days after that I was walking to the Quizno's for lunch and as I passed the Dunkin Donuts next door a woman wrapped in dirty brown clothes and some sort of scarf-like headgear asked me if I could buy her a bagel at the donut place. I kept walking, walked into the Quizno's, but I was thinking, OK she wants food not money...clearly this is a person who really is hungry and wants help. I can even help her more than she's asking for--I could buy her a sandwich here with some protein and everything! So I went back out and told the woman I'd buy her a sandwich at Quizno's. No, she said, she really just wanted a bagel because she didn't have many teeth and a bagel with cream cheese was something she could easily eat. All right, I said. I'll get it for you. We went into the donut place together. She ordered her bagel--cinnamon with strawberry cream cheese. Very sweet, I thought. I've got to get this woman something healthier and more nutritious. I asked the guy behind the counter if they had any soup...it was a cold day, I thought she'd appreciate something warm and healthy. No they didn't have any, he told me. Hey, I said to the woman, I could get you some soup from the Quizno's. No thanks, the woman said. I don't really like soup and I would hate for you to waste your money. I just want to make sure you get something healthy and nutritious, I told her. Well, I won't really eat it, she repeated. After a second she said, "But I would take a donut and some coffee."
I didn't buy her the donut and coffee. I left the store confused once again about the whole experience. If I am really to believe that Jesus can be encountered in the least of these, then Jesus has a major sweet tooth.
Which, I was thinking, if I was a homeless person, that's the kind I'd be. I'd rather have a donut than soup any day of the week. The fact that I order anything healthy and nutritious is purely an act of the will, not of desire. And if you're homeless you've pretty much left the orderly world of health and being "together". You're a renegade. You're not expected to look good, smell good or eat well. So maybe her lack of interest in soup or anything resembling protein was to be expected.
When I got back to the office and mentioned this experience to a guy I work with he said, "She's a meth addict. Chrystal Meth makes you crave sugar. That's also why she had no teeth."
Oh. OK. Explains a lot.
I don't know how to care for the least of these. That's what both these encounters have taught me. It's not something simple and easy to do. And I'm nowhere close to sensing God's presence in these screwed up, angry, manipulative, demanding, hostile, dirty and needy people. Except perhaps to the degree that they hold up a mirror to me. The man at the Cosi told me not to ask questions and offer choices if there really wasn't a choice. He showed me the deceptiveness in me. Not intentional, I want to say in my defense... Or at least so ingrained that I don't do it consciously. The woman at the Dunkin Donuts showed me an exaggerated version of myself--the part of me that would always rather have a donut than soup. Would always go for something sweet and vapid and a shot of pleasure for the moment, versus something healthy and nutritious with longer term value.
So maybe Jesus was there after all. But rather than giving me a warm, fuzzy feeling, he was there holding up a way-too-accurate mirror. Lighted. And magnifying.