A story rises up in me tonight, needing to be told. I am not sure why but I must follow the inner prompting.
Late last week, I was heading into Walgreen’s to pick up a prescription when I met him. I had just left church, my heart still warmed by Eucharist.
It had been a while since I had encountered anyone on my way into the pharmacy and I had wondered if they were cracking down on the panhandlers. Part of me secretly hoped they were. Another part (a better part, I hope) wondered where the poor were going during the pandemic.
Are there no places left to beg?
In any event, on this cool evening, I saw a young man lingering by the door. I braced myself, both knowing and not knowing what was to come.
As I reached the entrance, he apologized for stopping me and said that he wasn’t going to ask me for money. “Could you just buy me something to eat? I’m so hungry. I already have a dollar.”
“My name is Earl.”
This last part surprised me. Usually I am the one to initiate the introductions.
When I didn’t immediately say no, he continued, “I’ll wait until you take care of your business inside. I don’t care how long it takes.” Looking over his shoulder, he added, “I shouldn’t be standing here.”
Apparently they were cracking down. Undoubtedly people had complained at regularly being accosted by the poor.
Having agreed to help him, I was not surprised to find him waiting when I emerged ten minutes later.
Part of me just wanted to give him some money and be on my way. But I knew that was not what I was called to do. It would be easier – but not right.
It was not quite dark and the street was well lit. Normally it is a busy street but for many weeks it has been largely torn up in perpetual construction. I assessed the risks.
He chose a carry out pizza place within view and we set off walking, giving us an opportunity to talk.
“Pull up your face mask,” I repeatedly chided him, though clearly the mask had seen better days. “For your protection.”
He grumbled and complied.
I asked him how he came to be asking strangers to buy him food.
“My mother won’t have me anymore,” he replied without rancor. “I’m on probation.”
The charge had been assault. He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask him to. When I asked his age, I was surprised to learn that he was 27. I would have believed him if he had said 17.
He appeared so young, so thin, so lost.
His eyes were bloodshot. From drugs? Or perhaps from the exhaustion of living on the street? It didn’t really matter. He was hungry.
He didn’t have much body to hold up his pants and he tugged at them as they slipped.
“I don’t have a gun,” he assured me. “My pants just won’t stay up.”
We arrived at the shop where pizzas were basking under warming lights, waiting for someone to claim them.
Earl asked for a small cheese pizza. The worker, who also needed to pull his mask up, produced the pizza and looked a bit puzzled when it was time for money to be produced.
“I’m buying,” I filled the awkward moment, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Earl momentarily looked alarmed when tax was added, thinking perhaps it was going to cost more than I would pay. I assured him and paid it. (Probably a “tip” for the worker given that carryout food is not taxable in Ohio.)
Sniffing and caressing the box, Earl seemed to relax for a moment, anticipating relief.
As we left the pizza place, Earl paused. Inwardly sighing, I sensed what was coming next.
“Could I have $3 to pay this guy so I can stay at his house tonight? It’s going to be cold tonight.”
He was right. The temperature was predicted to drop into the 40’s. His clothes were thin. Two or three dollars seems to be the going rate for a night on someone’s couch.
I thought of how many things I buy that I don’t really need.
I gave him ten and we parted ways.
But he lingers in my memory. How will he ever survive?
I know I’m a fool. You don’t have to tell me.
All the things that could have happened to me.
How he probably used the money for drugs or alcohol.
That I’m reinforcing panhandling.
Yes, I know.
But, having just received Christ our Savior into my heart, could I possibly have said no? Can I claim communion with the Lord but ignore His lost child?
I cannot help but call to mind the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, often cited as “evidence” that there is a hell, a place of eternal damnation.
Whether one accepts this notion or the more merciful universalism I have previously defended, the utter gravity of the Lord’s warning cannot be ignored.
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.
Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.St. Matthew (25: 31-45)
I cannot fail to note that our Savior only issues this dire warning once in all of Scripture. He does not address this warning to those who have abortions or are homosexual, much less those who lie or steal or covet or murder.
It is not that He condones these disordered behaviors.
Rather, He is making it abundantly clear that we cannot claim righteousness before Him by simply keeping the Law.
In the end, it is not the Law that truly matters. We are broken and it is not the Law that saves us.
We are saved only by the love that pours forth from the heart of Christ – a love that not only keeps the Law but fulfills it in self-emptying sacrifice.
We who believe know that Jesus was not merely a wise man who lived 2000+ years ago. He is the anointed One, the eternal Son of the Father.
In His eternity, He is not gone from our midst.
He walks the streets. He is hungry. He is sick. He is naked. He is in prison.
Indeed, I am a fool. I do not write this to justify myself but to condemn myself.
I did not do nearly enough.
Forgive me, Earl.
May God in His mercy walk with you and guide you and protect you.