I am sure we all have seen scenarios like this in real life. I live in Atlanta, and it’s hard to go downtown and not be confronted with the homeless population of our city. During the majority of my experiences downtown, I get approached at least once, sometimes more, by individuals asking for money, for food or for anything that I can spare. And if I am honest, more often than not, my reactions and responses lack compassion. Now, I may have a kind demeanor toward them, and I may even speak to them with respect, but usually below the surface the thoughts going through my heart don’t match my outward manner. In my heart I am making snap judgments.
“Seriously, why don’t you just get a job.”
“Stop playing the victim and take some responsibility.”
“Why should I give you money when you’ll just spend it on booze?”
In my last post I said that compassion (or our lack thereof) comes from the way we see people. Do we see people the way Jesus sees people, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9v36), or do we see people as a means to an end and an interruption in my day? I would submit that when we see people apart from the way Jesus sees people we fail to realize that often there’s a story behind the story.
What I mean, is that most people don’t wake up one day and say, “My life’s ambition is to be on the street, homeless and beg for money.” Now, I would say that for some people the homeless lifestyle is a choice and I do realize that there are clever scam artists who pose as homeless, but by in large I’ve never met a kid when asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” answer by saying, “I want to be homeless.” The down and out lifestyle isn’t something to which people aspire. So on the surface, it may appear that this person needs to simply clean up their act, but in reality there very well could be a whole set of life circumstance outside of their control that have led them to where they are today.
To start, maybe this guy is born into poverty. He grows up in a home with two siblings and no father. Therefore, his mother has to work 2 jobs just to make ends meet and many months go by where she has to decide between putting food on the table or paying the rent. And to top it off, his mom’s live in boyfriend is not only verbally abusive but physically abusive as well. At the age of 8, after many months of not paying the rent, this family gets evicted and now this boy is raised on the streets bouncing from one shelter and soup kitchen to another. He is given a script in life he didn’t choose and that script automatically sets his life on a certain trajectory that he can’t redirect. Often times, there is a story behind the story.
There’s this great passage in Isaiah 11 that foreshadows what the Messiah (i.e. Jesus) will be like when he comes on the scene in the gospels. The prophet writes,
“The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD – and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” (v2-4, NIV)
Wait a minute. Did you catch that? It says, “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears, but with righteousness…, and justice…” We often judge based on what we see and what we hear. We look at a homeless guy on the street and we make snap judgments. When we do that we end up like the Pharisees in Jesus’ story in Luke 18.
“Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” (v9-12, NLT)
Jesus knows that there is a story behind the story. And by knowing the full story it enables him to be filled with compassion and see people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
This doesn’t apply just to homeless people in the inner city, this applies to all people in all contexts everywhere. Think of the co-worker in the office, that woman we try to avoid, because we think she is a nuisance and inhibits our productivity. Or, what about the neighbor across the way. We don’t even know his name, but we think that we got him all figured out and therefore, we steer clear of any interaction with him. When this is the case, we easily elevate ourselves above these folks and live with the mentality “They’re not worth my time.” But Jesus never viewed people that way. He saw every individual as someone who is made in the image of God and is therefore infused with worth and value.
When we take the risk and begin to enter into people’s lives, especially people we try to avoid. When we begin to ask questions and learn who they really are and know their true story, we begin to see them in a whole new light and have a whole new capacity for compassion. This is where our hearts will begin to soften and even begin to break and we will begin to see people as Jesus saw them, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
May we be people who no longer make snap judgments.
May we no longer judge simply based on what we see and hear.
May we be people who long to know the story behind the story.
May we have hearts that are broken for people in need.