Due to where I live, I pass panhandlers almost every day. Usually they are at major intersections near the edges of my neighborhood, and a few characters frequent certain storefronts on Broadway.
Most people, if asked, will offer some Theory of Interaction with the Indigent: I keep a dollar in my pocket to give away ~ I buy them food instead of giving money ~ I think they should get jobs ~ I try to just smile if I have nothing to give. We come up with these theories in our dormitory common rooms and church forums on justice. They are big beautiful ideas of who we want to be. Yet I, after being faced with people begging for change nearly ever day, have adopted a practice very different from any theory of my youth: I ignore them.
Sure, some days I dig into my parking meter reserves, and most days I try to at least make eye contact, but rarely does the window come down when I’m waiting at the light. It’s not because I’m frightened or can’t afford it, but because when I am in the car on my way home I feel lazy, and I’m often too emotionally over-extended to engage another person.
This past Sunday dawned bright and cool, and not long after dawn I set out to meet friends with whom I was to go to a race later in the day. I waited at a huge intersection which was abnormally empty. As a man approached I rolled down my window. It’s the Lord’s Day, I thought, and I was feeling secure and moved by someone panhandling in the middle of an abandoned intersection.
When I gave the man some money, I suggested he get a cup of coffee, thinking “I am enjoying coffee as I drive, he should be able to enjoy some too”. Unfortunately he took umbrage, responding “Do I look like I’m high? This money is for rent.”
The light was still red, so he continued with his story. Its particulars aren’t important, but it involved leaving his job at a big box store because they capped his wages at $14/hour. The light turned green and I offered words of encouragement. His parting words were “well, it’s been a lesson in humility. Not everyone is nice like you.”
Nice like me. I drove away flushed with shame, knowing that I am not nice. I claw my way toward generosity and goodness like someone scaling a mountain. But to him, I was nice. My easy frustration and indulgent complexity meant nothing to him in our short interaction, and I was doubly shamed by my quick assumption that all of my over-thinking would matter at all to a person who was just looking for someone to be nice.
The real reason I was flushed after our conversation, and the reason this conversation has been on my mind for days, was his casual mention of a lesson in humility. We claim to seek humility, but don’t want the ugly steps it takes to get there. If my life continues on its current path, chances are I will never be humbled like my new friend. I will not beg for change, I will not approach strangers for rent money, I will not be so alone that I tell my story to strangers on Melnea Cass Blvd.
One can only become humble by being brought low. When Jesus said “blessed are the poor”, was this part of what he was talking about? The destruction of illusions about our own self-sufficiency is a pre-condition for deepening our faith, but it takes guts. We want to trust in a higher power while maintaining a secret stash of our own power, just in case.
The story of the woman caught in adultery was the gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s an incredibly rich story, which – to my great horror – is often reduced to a morality lesson about sex. To me, it is a story of powerful, proud people, hiding behind indignance. The woman is truly powerless, having sinned like we all do, but her sins more exposed than any of ours ever are. Like many women she has been made physically vulnerable, at the mercy of a merciless crowd, yet even the crowd doesn’t value her – she is only a way to catch Jesus in blasphemy, to bring a charge against him.
When Jesus intervenes, he turns everything upside-down, as he often does. Suddenly the righteous are dismissed, not by force but by moral reasoning: Let one who is without sin cast the first stone. And the one who is brought low, the last person with whom we would want to change places, is lifted up, touched by God, directed by holy wisdom, and redeemed.
What more could any of us want? Blessed are the poor, indeed.