I didn’t know what to think about it then, and I’m not sure what to think about it now. He sat on the sidewalk outside the store, the narrow awning doing little to shield him from the misty rain. A half-burnt cigarette dangled from his dirty fingers; a pile of matching butts on the ground next to him implied that he had been there awhile. His eyes were friendly and tired. His skin, worn and leathery. His hair, longer than is customary, and his clothes, inappropriate to the season.
As we approached the door to the store, he offered a friendly greeting…and this:
“Ma’am, you wouldn’t happen to have any spare change, would you?”
The words rolled off my tongue without a thought: “I’m sorry. I don’t have any cash at all. Maybe when I come back out?”
He nodded appreciatively and we went about our shopping. What he didn’t know – but honestly, probably suspected – was that I did have money in my purse. Granted, it wasn’t much. Three dollar bills and a handful of miscellaneous coins, but I knew it was there.
I didn’t think anything else about him as we shopped for allergy medicine and bread and cheese. Actually, by the time I had waited in line at the pharmacy while my preschooler did the familiar potty dance next to me, I had forgotten all about the man outside. He was nowhere in my thoughts as I paid for our things, rushed to the restroom, or fumbled for my keys and opened my umbrella. He wasn’t in my consciousness as we rounded the corner back into the parking lot. It wasn’t until I saw him looking at me expectantly that I remembered he was there and realized that the next move was mine.
I less-than-graciously rummaged one-handed through my wallet and shook a dollar bill loose from the disgusting tangle of receipts. I offered it to him, accepted his thanks, and walked on to the car with my little girl’s curious eyes watching my every move.
As we buckled into our seats and drove away, my spirit was unsettled. I felt ashamed. I felt sick. I felt further from the image of Christ than I have in a long time.
I have to confess that as I handed that wrinkled dollar bill over, my thoughts were not of love and mercy and “doing to the least of these.” Rather, my thoughts were of getting off the hook. Of doing just enough to be able to say that I had done something. Of doing what was only mildly uncomfortable so I could look that man and myself in the eye. Of being able to say to God and myself, “That was nice of me, wasn’t it?”
Good for you, Jess. Let me pat you on the back.
In the eyes of people watching, what I did probably looked nice. It probably looked generous and, yes, “Christian.” But as I look back on it, I can’t help but think that in the actual eyes of Christ, it probably looked pretty repulsive.
I’m not trying to be extra hard on myself, though admittedly I’m good at that. I’m trying to weigh and measure my actions against the perfect standard Jesus gave.
The ugly bottom line is that when I was presented with an opportunity to reflect Christ, I instead chose to reflect myself. I could have lavishly demonstrated the same extravagant love God has poured out on me. I could have acted out of worship and adoration. I could have, yet I chose convenience over truth. I chose comfort over sacrifice. I chose selfishness over godliness, and my own agenda over that of God. I chose myself over Christ.
“Then the King will say…’I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’
“And the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!'” (Jesus, in Matthew 25:40)
Jesus’ message is clear: we are to love other people as though we are looking into His eyes instead of theirs. We are to do to them what we would do for Him.
And yet, how often do I choose instead to walk by, self-absorbed and unconcerned about anything but myself?
When Jesus said those words, He didn’t give stipulations. He didn’t imply that the circumstances have to be perfect, or that the stars must be perfectly aligned for us to follow through. He simply said for us to do it, giving food and drink and clothing and, yes, crumpled dollar bills from our wallets, regardless of how hard or embarrassing or uncomfortable or inconvenient or scary or costly it might be. We are to do it, no matter how many other errands we have on our lists or how cold and rainy it is outside or how impatient our children are or how much we were looking forward to that cup of absurdly fancy coffee.
What I think God is telling me in this is that service – this idea of doing things for other people – is not about obligation. It’s not about what we should do or how we can get ourselves off the hook. It’s about jumping at the chance to do for other people what we would love to do for our Lord. It’s about loving Him by loving other people, not because we feel like we should but because we are eager to find another way to show our love. It’s not about doing just enough. It’s about doing all we can because nothing will ever be enough.
In situations like this, when I can’t go back and fix what I did (or, in this case, didn’t do), I pray that God would help me to better reflect Him the next time such an opportunity presents itself. I pray about it and maybe cry about it…and write about it so that others can learn the painful lesson without the sting of shameful remorse.
Merciful Jesus, please forgive us for the countless times and ways we have loved ourselves more than we have loved you. We repent, and ask you to help us. Help us to leave ourselves behind so that we can have more of you. Help us to follow your example for no other reason than to love you the way you ought to be loved. Help our hearts to overflow with love in such a way that our automatic response to situations is a more perfect reflection of you. Take us all the way to the cross so that we understand in a new way how far perfect love is willing to go. Thank you for giving us an example to follow. We love you, Jesus. Amen.