There’s a lot of talk going around right now about the “work of fiction that is based in reality” as “Jeremiah Steepek” (pictured above) calls his tale of masquerading as a homeless man to shame his brand new congregation. It’s generated a lot of self-righteous talk among Christians and a lot of finger-pointing at those who aren’t in the trenches with the outcasts.
The “New Pharisees” as Matushka Donna Farley called them, here, are all around us, whether they’re inhabiting church pews or occupying public buildings and parks to protest the inequities of modern life, and they take great delight in proving their moral superiority every chance they get. I know, because I have a tendency to be one of them.
Misinterpreting the Gospel?
We Pharisees, in our mutual admiration society and our eagerness to pat ourselves on the back for being such “good Christians”, forget two things. The first thing we forget is that the verses we’re so fond of quoting in Matthew’s gospel: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” don’t mean just one group of people.
Most of us (whether we’re New Pharisees or not) tend to identify those verses with the marginalized and the most visibly broken and outcast members of our society. We assume that if you aren’t out there in the trenches with the homeless and the addicts, you just aren’t doing your part. What we forget is that you don’t have to be on the street to be hungry. You don’t have to be addicted to alcohol to be thirsty, you don’t have to have Hep C, AIDS and withdrawal to be sick, and you don’t have to be wearing torn, ragged and dirty clothes to be naked.
Close to home
Every parish has people who can’t make ends meet, whether they’re pensioners living on a too small income, parents raising kids on too small a paycheck, or a young adult working short hours on less than minimum wage. Every street has someone on it suffering from some disorder, disease or condition that keeps them isolated, lonely and frightened. Every school has students who are at risk because their home situation is in crisis or who are victims of abuse and neglect, regardless of their income, skin colour, ancestry or public face. I’ll guarantee you that every single person who reads this knows someone who is suffering in some way – lacking food, clothing, friendship or comfort, whether you’re aware of it or not.
The other thing we forget is what Pastor Willie Lyle, who did live as a homeless man for a week, said: “. . . we look at the outside of others and make judgments. God looks inside our heart and sees the truth.”
Using our weakness
We are all broken. We are all, inside, as dirty, torn, ragged and smelly as the people on the street. Maybe that’s why so many of us pass on the other side – those people show us too clearly what we look like to God and it scares us. We aren’t ready to see how truly broken we are, and for some of us, it reminds us of where we came from or where we could end up. It’s a good thing God is as loving and kind and merciful as He is, because of course, He knows that, and He calls us to work for others according to our hearts, our talents and our weaknesses, using those and our strengths to help all His children.
The woman in choir who avoids certain streets downtown because of the beggars happens to know who in the parish is isolated, lonely or homebound, and makes sure that someone other than the priest visits at least once or twice a week. The computer programmer who stands by the icon of the Transfiguration teaches kids at the Boys and Girls Club to read, because they didn’t pick it up in school. Father gives the shy young lady at the very back of the church the names of the people in hospital and she makes sure she sees them while they’re sick. Four of the kids in the youth group do yard work for elderly, infirm people on their streets, and two others take poor kids out for hikes in the woods a couple of times a month. The quiet guy who stands behind the choir teaches and plays guitar in an extended care facility for severely brain injured people.
We do what we can
We don’t all have to work in the homeless shelters and the detox centres in order to clothe the naked and befriend the stranger. We cannot shun them, we cannot let our fear and our shame push them further away from the centre than they already are. We have to see the humanity in them, and try to see Christ in their faces, however ravaged and vacant they are.
But we also have to see the quiet suffering behind respectable clothing and polite manners. We are called to feed those hungry ones, clothe those naked ones and befriend those strangers who live next door and who stand beside us in liturgy, too.
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