It was the early morning work day commute on a busy street, drivers racing to be first in line at the on-ramp. The twilight was misty and cold. On the right-hand sidewalk a little gaggle of poor day laborers and homeless men were huddled trying to feel warm in each other’s smoky presence, hands wrapped around paper cups of cheap coffee from the Seven-Eleven on the left-hand side of the street. Suddenly in the meridian from behind a car paused in the turning lane, another poor man appeared, coffee cup in hand, timidly assessing his chances of scooting across the two car-filled lanes, one of which I was in. The fellow was moving slowly too, not because he was timid, but I got the impression he probably couldn’t move any faster. The look on his face was one of sheepishness mixed with shame, and just a little hope, as he waited for his chance to make the crossing there in the middle of a block. The cars ahead of me just sped up as they passed him, one honking callously, as if hurrying past a leper. As I came up to him, I slowed down, intending to stop, with no one behind me. The man looked perplexed, and motioned for me to keep driving. This was a case of a human at risk, regardless of right and wrong, and the law does say, after all, that pedestrians have the right of way, and not just at official cross walks. I came to a full stop about twelve feet away from him, looked him in the eye, pointed at him briskly, and then turned the direction of my left hand and jerkily pointed right towards the sidewalk. He understood, and obediently followed my direction, firm but gentle. We smiled at each other, and he crossed, hobbling. I was right. There was something wrong with his powers of locomotion.
The poor you will always have with you; you will not always have Me.
This was a case of “the poor you will always have with you.” For the man who has his eye on Jesus, to follow Him in doing what he sees Him doing, the plan of action is always clear: Whatsoever you do to the least of My brothers, that you do unto Me.
There are many kinds of people in the world, and many kinds of Christians. Some are unbelievers, others are believers, and some are followers. In these three categories there are people who identify themselves as Christians, and those who don’t. We can’t classify ourselves as to which category we belong to any more than we can classify ourselves as white or colored, male or female. We just do what we do because we are who we are. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and we can’t fool Him by pious acts or humanistic posing. He knows our hearts. He knows who is with Him and who is against Him.
Though we didn’t have a choice whether or not to be born, we do have a choice whether or not to be born again. We may have started out like one of those in the crowd of five thousand that were drawn to hear Jesus speak, and we may even have received not only His words but also been fed by Him. We may be like one of those in that crowd, some of whom were unbelievers and others believers, but which group we really belonged to was finally revealed at the steps of the procurator’s office, where we chanted either, “Jesus” or “Barabbas” or even “Crucify him!”
As long as we haven’t chosen to be born again, born from above, we remain part of the vast ochlos (Greek: “crowd”), whose true beliefs and priorities are hidden from others and even from ourselves. We may call ourselves Christians or maybe we don’t, but God doesn’t recognize names, He gives them.
To respond to the call of Christ removes us for all time from the ochlos and places us among the Twelve. Our belief, our poor faith and our initial anxiety, get suddenly replaced by the certainty of recognition, knowing for sure that “it is me” He is pointing to so firmly, that “it is me” He is looking so hard at eye to eye, and that “it is me” He is directing to cross to the other side, to safety, along the secure bridge of a gentle, shared smile.
And we find that just as He has treated us, with firm direction but gentle sympathy for our weaknesses, and unmixed good will, we are ourselves able to treat others in the very same way, replicating in the daily frailty of our human natures, even by little things, the abundant life He has given us to share with others.
“…like a tree that is planted, deep-rooted, by streams of water, yielding its fruit in season, its leaves never fading.”