I am a very lucky gal. I notice this every time I drive across town and see people at street corners begging. It seems like someone with a cardboard sign has staked out every single place where cars stop to wait for traffic lights. Me, I don’t have to beg. Not today, anyway.
I’ll bet it’s pretty awful to have to stand there day after day asking for money. Over time it must really erode a person’s self esteem. Imagine having to grovel for dollars, then having to put up with all the different reactions to your ask: the condescending well-wisher, the repulsed and angry witholder, the curious and naive conversationalist, the skittish avoider. Imagine having to interact with one stranger after another, every one of them sitting in judgment. I’m an introvert; it sounds horrid. It must be so tempting to just check out using cheap alcohol or drugs. I can easily imagine that. There is probably so much else I cannot imagine.
I have a colleague who just got back from a stint on the streets in Washington, D.C., in which she lived as a homeless beggar for a couple of weeks in order to experience what it is really like. I am looking forward to her report from the field.
Today’s Gospel story is about how Jesus tells a lawyer who has asked him, “who is our neighbor?” a famous parable, the one about The Good Samaritan. Because so many charities carry that name these days, I like to re-title the story “The Beneficent Alien” or even “The Merciful Terrorist”.
Here’s how it goes. A man is robbed and beaten and left in the gutter. Two religious people come by, and for various reasons they leave him where he lies and go on their way. A loathsome, foreign merchant comes along and picks the man out of the gutter, giving him medical care and paying for lodging until he can get back on his feet.
After telling the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of the three people who came by was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
“Christ, have mercy on me,” is a mantra I sometimes use when I’m writing icons. I grew up thinking that mercy was the act of setting aside just recompense for bad behavior. “Have mercy,” meant “let me off the hook.” What a misunderstanding!
Mercy is the very essence of God. It is the glue that holds planets in their courses and that also binds us people one to another and each of us to God. It is covenantal and sacrificial love.
There are dozens of ways to help people deal with homelessness and poverty, but for a Christian the central, most important attribute of any choice is mercy. We can never let the other person be less than human to us. We must always be open, vulnerable, willing to be changed by him or her. We must not walk by unseeing and unaffected. We must live into being neighbors!
Laurie Gudim is a spiritual director, religious iconographer and writer living in Ft. Collins, Colorado. For more information and a few images of her work, go to everydaymysteries.com