NEW YORK – Homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
As of this spring, there was an all-time record of 50,700 homeless people living on the streets of New York. If you walk more than a block, you will be confronted with this reality.
After preaching the parable of the Good Samaritan at the Gallery Church, I was headed to Harlem for dinner with my girlfriend, Liz. As we were walking up the stairs to exit the subway, I saw him: a nameless elderly man in dirty clothes, begging for change. This wasn’t out of the norm to see at a subway stop.
But for me, this time was different. I watched as people walked by and refused to acknowledge his existence. Yet, he persisted, “Can I have a dollar for a sandwich?” I watched as each person actively chose to look down rather than to look up at the face of the man.
I have to confess that I also walked by. But with each step, my feet felt heavier to the point that I could no longer continue.
I heard two voices. One was the faint, defeated voice of the man asking for change. The other voice was my own, reciting the remnants of the sermon I had just preached: “Don’t be the Levite, don’t be the priest, who walked by and refused to love the man who was vulnerable.”
Too many times we dehumanize the people that God loves and values. Tim Keller in his book Generous Justice explains, “Jesus taught that a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor lapse, but reveals that something is seriously wrong with one’s spiritual compass, the heart.”
His point is that a heart that is not bent toward grace and mercy is one that has not experienced true compassion. The fact that we ignore the poor, whom God values, points to a heart that doesn’t value God.
Most of us devalue other human beings unconsciously. Whether we do it out of self-protection, fear or apathy, our response to those who are weak and vulnerable indicates where they rank in our value system.
In the parable, Jesus did not investigate whether the reasons the priest and Levite walked by the dying man were valid. That was not His point. The issue was that regardless of their reasoning, they actively chose to walk away and not show compassion. They chose not to love their neighbor.
By giving this lesson in the form of a parable, Jesus challenges us to identify with the characters. He wants us to see our reflection as we see the lack of love shown by the priest and Levite. He wants us to see our own neediness as we see the man lying in the ditch. Unlike the half-dead man, the Bible says that we are completely dead in our sins.
In our sin and spiritual deadness, we are enemies of Christ. But Christ did not leave us to die. He spoke life into my death when I could not love God and I could not love others. He didn’t merely risk His life to help us, He freely gave it.
Jesus Christ has fulfilled the character of the Good Samaritan. He came to us in our brokenness and rescued us by His grace. By His life, death and resurrection in my place, He saved me. There was nothing I could do to earn His favor.
As a response to His free grace, I am moved to act in compassion and trust God with the results. My response is to care for the vulnerable and to give graciously.
The grace of God alone can change our focus. Whether our response is to have a conversation with a homeless person or to care for the child who has been trafficked into prostitution, we respond to those that are helpless and exploited as a result of our own redemption and freedom from the bondage of sin.
Only as we reflect on the gospel can we go from someone who desires self-protection to someone who desires to protect others. The gospel motivates us to see every person as someone God values rather than merely a statistic. The gospel empowers us to value those society rejects as those who have been created in the image of God.
With that fact fresh in mind, I turned around and began talking with the man. Liz later told me that his face brightened up as I acknowledged him. I asked him what he needed, and he told me he just wanted a sandwich.
So we quickly went to the local bodega, and I told him to order whatever he wanted. As we talked, I began to notice a change in my own heart. This man, whom I had originally chosen to ignore, had a name.
Timothy, or “Dreads” as he liked to be called, told us about his life. He was so excited that we would stop to spend time with him that he invited us to swing by his shelter and ask for him anytime.
He even gave us the phone number for his new prepaid phone. “What are you doing for the Fourth of July?” Timothy asked.
“Because a few other friends in the shelter and I are getting together to have a little barbecue. We would love for you to come and spend some time with us,” he said.
After this invitation, I was moved as I realized that I now spoke to this man as if he were a member of my own family. By the end of the conversation, I could tell that the feeling was mutual and that we both valued one another.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Raleigh Sadler is a North American Mission Board missionary and college pastor at Gallery Church in New York City.)