Today I brought my paycheck to the bank. As I waited for the teller to do whatever bank tellers do behind their crenelated counters, I looked out the window and saw a homeless man in a wheel-chair roll himself into some shade and hoist himself down to the grass of one of those “parking lot islands.” I was struck by the irony of the situation. Here I was coolly handing over hundreds of dollars in a comfortable building and not 40 yards away was a man sweating in the noon sun with a card board sign asking for food. I left the bank, got measured for a suit and stopped at a fast food restaurant for a quick lunch. This is when something weird happened. I ordered two meals. The weird thing was that I didn’t intend to buy two. The words came out as if from elsewhere and then there I stood holding two burritos. Holding the burritos in a numb confusion I remembered what I had read earlier that day, “If you have two cloaks, give one to the poor.” (Grrrr. Sometimes Scripture ‘pops-up’ at the most inopportune times, does it not?) So I found the homeless man in the parking lot and sat with him for lunch.
I must say that I hesitate in sharing this story because I do not in anyway wish to present a story that might make me seem more righteous than I really am. In fact I share this story as a way of showing just how unholy my thoughts and feelings were concerning this whole burrito event. Perhaps you might relate to my experience.
There must have been at least 45 minutes between the time I saw the homeless man and the time I bought the lunch. Those 45 minutes where chock full of moral debate. I could not shake the man from my thoughts. I had finally convinced myself that buying the man lunch would not do any good anyway and giving him money would only enable his current life style so there was nothing I could do. After all, “The poor will always be among us.” Right? Cold logic and reason insulated me from this man’s poverty. I sinned against him. That is when I suddenly found myself holding two burritos.
Now as I sit here again in my office thinking back on my lunch I wonder why I did it. Why did I bring that man that lunch and then sit with him as we ate together? It certainly was not because I had any illusions about fixing this man’s condition. I think I had two reasons for doing what I did.
Unfortunately, the first reason I brought that man lunch was I knew it would make me feel better. I knew it would stroke my conscience to be able to say I brought a lunch to a homeless man. I thought God would be proud of me. Then and there I sinned against the Lord. As if a heartless offering could dupe the Prince of Peace. I suppose that is why 1 Cor 13 says that if we sell all we have and give it to the poor without love it is meaningless.
The second reason I ate lunch with that man I did not discover until I ate with him. As we munched on tortilla chips and chicken burritos a gap was bridged, albeit for just 15 minutes. I longed for contact with that man. I needed to talk to him, eat with him, share with him. Not just for his good, but for my good. I needed his forgiveness. As we ate the lunch became my unspoken but sincere apology and recognition that his poverty was not simply a result of his sin. His poverty was just as much a result of MY sin.
Because of two burritos and a homeless man I understand my own humanity better than I did before. Or perhaps I now see the truth in those famous lyrics, “No Man is an Island.” We were created together. We are not independent, but rather are interdependent. As Bishop Desmond Tutu writes, when one of us is dehumanized, we are all dehumanized. The Nazi guards who tortured and killed millions of Jews are frequently described as animals. There is more literal truth in that analogy then we often admit. The more the Nazi’s dehumanized their prey the more inhuman they became. In a much more subtle and sophisticated manner, the more we ignore the poor, the more we dehumanize them…. thus the more we become less human. I now understand perhaps a little better why Jesus named the greatest commandment of all to be “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” Obeying this commandment is at the core of who we are. Obeying this commandment makes us more human, more like the only perfect human – Jesus.
Jesus did say that the poor will always be with/among you. I have always used this text as a rationalization for their existence. I have converted this text into a pillow for my guilty head whenever my consideration for those poorer then myself and what I might do for them gives me a headache. But when I looked at the context for these words Jesus spoke I see that Jesus said them while surrounded by liars and cheats and his feet was being washed by the perfume owned by the village hooker. When you consider his context I don’t think Jesus was saying poverty was ok, rather I think he was saying that wherever HE is found there you will find the poor. Wherever grace is found, you will find the poor. An old mentor of mine likes to say, “Grace flows downhill and pools in the lowest places.” Maybe that is what Jesus was saying.
I never thought I could learn so much from two burritos.