A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” – Luke 18:18-22
It was a blistering hot Thursday afternoon and I was driving through downtown St. Louis, MO in a car packed with family. We were traveling to an excellent burger joint for a family lunch and had exited the highway at N. 14th Street, when we came upon a homeless man on the corner of the off-ramp. He held a sign asking for help and stood there in a manner we have all undoubtedly seen in our own respective cities. Pulling up, just past him, I reached into my pocket and grabbed a clump of money, inspected it to make sure I didn’t mistakenly grab any of my id or debit cards and handed it to him, then offered a quick blessing, which he returned. After rolling the window up, we turned and continued our journey.
Further down the road, a voice came from the back seat advising that giving to such people essentially provides them with the means to support some addictive habit, which was an implication that it is not good to do such things in the first place; this warning did not anger me in the least and it is something that I have heard my whole life from family and friends. Nevertheless, we cannot think this way. If we look at it from a general viewpoint, it is unfair to assume that all homeless people or beggars of any sort are secretly rich or addicted to drugs and refusing to give to one or any because of possibility is a wrong against the ones who are generally in need, but it is more than this.
The “certain ruler” asserted that he had kept all of the commandments from his youth, but Jesus exposed the part where he was lacking, commanding him to “sell everything…and give to the poor”; this, we read, saddened him greatly because he was a wealthy man. Prior to this, Jesus had been invited to eat with a Pharisee (Luke 11:37-41) and upon reclining at the table, the Pharisee confessed his shock that Jesus had not washed before eating, to which Jesus answered that they were far more concerned with the outside of the cup, instead of the inside and that they should “be generous to the poor” so that the inside would be as clean as well. In both cases, the Pharisees and the “certain ruler” had been concerned with their outward appearance, but they lacked the “heart” that God had for the downtrodden.
Jesus had a habit of focusing on the need of the poor and this habit does not or did not cease upon His ascension to the right hand of the Father; instead, we are still supposed to act according to His focus and love for them. How many of us are so focused on facades and outward appearances? How many in the world act to appear good and clean, but are dirty and rotten on the inside? We were all once one of those people, though some us were just as dirty on the outside than the inside. It is more than just being improper or unfair to refuse giving to the poor on the basis that they may or may not have an addiction or secret wealth – it is sinful. Whatever it is we do, we do to Jesus. This point should be a stark reminder of His own words to us. In Matthew 25, Jesus spoke about the end, when the sheep and goats are separated. To the sheep, He says:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
And to the goats, He says,
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
Each ask, “When did we” and He answers, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did [not do] for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did [not do] for me.” We have a responsibility to give freely and without expectations or assumptions, for this is what Jesus would have us do for others and this need is more than traveling hundreds or thousands of miles, overseas or mountains, through deserts or jungles. No, this need is feet from you or miles from you, standing on the corners of your cities, sleeping in your alleys, digging in your trash, there is a need and it is so close to where you are. Do you avert your nose from the stench of their poverty or do you give and, if you give, do you give in love? I pray that the Spirit convicts our hearts to act with greater and far more profound kindness for the downtrodden in our society – that is to say the “untouchables” of our culture’s own caste system. Jesus came to the lowly and expects the same from us.
To Him who saves us, all praise and honor, and to the glory of the Father. Amen.