Perhaps I had grown too accustomed to seeing people dig through the garbage containers at the edge of the street in my residential neighborhood in Semarang, Indonesia. Then, one day I prepared a sermon for the small English-language congregation I had been asked to lead.
Thinking that the story of a poor beggar lying at the gate of an apathetic, self-involved rich man could be strikingly suitable for the typical congregation of middle class Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Australian, Indian, German, French, Dutch, Canadian, American and Indonesian worshippers, I chose as my topic Jesus’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16. But how surprised I was when driving home I noticed a man wearing a filthy, torn loincloth, digging through a garbage bin only 100 meters from my house.
Feeling pricks of conscience as I drove past him that afternoon, I circled the block and stopped at a neighborhood warung — a food stall with canvas walls surrounding simple wooden tables, crude benches and a tiny cooking area. There I bought a serving of rice, wrapped in a banana leaf, along with a plastic bag of tea secured with a rubber band, and took them back to the man I couldn’t ignore. Rolling down the car window, I extended the small meal toward him. He approached slowly, taking my offering without expressing any appreciation, but I thought, “Well, that’s OK, I’ve not neglected him. I’ve carried out my moral duty.”
For the next several days, however, this beggar remained near our gate. Every afternoon I returned to the warung and bought him another meal, each one bigger than the last. I would park my car, get out and try to engage him in conversation, but he was undoubtedly one of the walking wounded — seriously impaired from a life of poor nutrition, exposure to the elements, chronic illness and bad treatment by others — so he didn’t talk to me.
Then one day I had a brainstorm. Or maybe it was an epiphany. Taking this man by the elbow, I led him slowly around the corner to the warung. I parted the tent flaps, and we went inside and sat at a table with other patrons — university students and civil servants on their way home from school or work. They looked up, startled by what this strange foreigner had done. I purchased two large meals with hot tea and watched him sit there with rather uncommon dignity. Naked except for his ragged waistcloth, he ate silently, with matted hair and glazed eyes seeming to look at nothing in particular.
This man, someone the average citizen of my city would have called an orang gila (“crazy person”), was almost certainly not a Christian. He likely was born into a Muslim family in a poor Central Java neighborhood and probably was taken to prayers at the local mosque by his father and mother, who never imagined their son would one day live on the streets. But the social stigma of his homelessness, weakened physical and mental condition, and desperate poverty had long ago made it impossible for him to practice the religion of his childhood.
Yet this Muslim beggar taught me a lesson about human dignity and compassion at the table that day. In that holy moment, surrounded by the “sacred” elements of rice and tea, I felt very close to God. Mysteriously, after sitting alongside that stranger for a most unusual meal, I never saw him in our neighborhood again. It was as if he simply disappeared. For me, although it sounds illogical, he was — as Mother Teresa often expressed it — Christ in the guise of the poor.
“In that holy moment, surrounded by the ‘sacred’ elements of rice and tea, I felt very close to God.”
Recalling this profound experience in Central Java many years ago, I am reminded of the importance of affirming the dignity of others, even — and perhaps most especially — those who are different from ourselves.
I don’t discover beggars desperately digging through the garbage can at my home in America, however. There are no physically, mentally and emotionally damaged persons who canvas my quiet, privileged neighborhood hoping to discover a discarded treasure no one wanted. But if I drive a few miles to another part of my city, I may find someone in a similarly hopeless situation. Some of these people live with their extended families in very old houses not much larger than my outdoor storage shed. Others stand near the exit to the parking lot at Walmart, hoping to attract attention and help. They hold up signs at traffic lights where many drivers line up our cars — windows and doors secured, air conditioners blasting away in the Texas heat, surround-sound stereos playing a soothing melody or upbeat lyric to numb the concerns of the day.
I catch myself avoiding eye contact with the people who are soliciting help at Walmart or the town’s favorite traffic stops. I glance at their hand-scrawled signs and quickly look away, suspicious that this person is working a con, that he doesn’t really need a bus ticket to Amarillo, that she doesn’t really have three kids she can’t feed, that “God bless you” on their cardboard signs is a gimmick rather than the poignant nudging of the Holy Spirit.
Occasionally, as I pull away from them in my comfortable sedan, I remember the lesson about giving dignity that I learned in Semarang, Indonesia. Sadly, though, I most often don’t roll down my window to extend a gift, and I never have stopped my car to get out for a conversation.
Has the lesson that dawned so brightly in my Central Java neighborhood dimmed with the passage of years, or have I simply become cynical and self-centered after living in America again for the past 25 years?
“My story centers on granting dignity to the poorest of the poor, but I know I should offer that gift to everyone I meet.”
My story centers on granting dignity to the poorest of the poor, but I know I should offer that gift to everyone I meet.
I must give dignity to those people online who push back against my political views, because these friends and even strangers are the Facebook “enemies” whom God calls me to love (Matthew 5:44), despite our ideological disagreements.
I have to be courteous toward those who are much younger or older, differently experienced or less formally educated than I — avoiding any hint of arrogance or superiority based upon my age, resumé or degrees — knowing that when I do not self-promote I am reflecting the one who said he was “humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
I should always act respectfully toward women, forsaking my culture’s preferential treatment of men, because I recognize that women and men are created as equals in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).
I need to honor persons who follow other religious paths, recalling that the ministry of Jesus was inspired by how God had cared for a widow of Zarephath and the Syrian leper (Luke 4:25-27).
I am compelled to value those who are racially different than I, knowing that because I am “in Christ” there can be no distinction in the way I treat them.
My commitment to Jesus calls me to recognize my connection to and oneness with others in the new “kin-dom” God desires (Galatians 3:28).
I can’t say that the woman who interjects herself into my thoughts as I finish shopping at Walmart, or the man who catches my attention as I go to my next appointment, are Christ in the surprising guise of the poor. Maybe not. Perhaps they really are running a scam. All I can know for sure is what Jesus said: when I treat the least of these with compassion and charity, I am ministering to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).
Perhaps this mystifying identification of even the “least” of human beings with the one Christians call divine can be clarified by the doctrine of the incarnation.
Diana Eck writes: “Incarnation means that God finds us, and we find God, in the human faces of one another and in the human fabric of our lives” In the spirit of the incarnation, Methodist lay leader Pauline Webb, in a 1983 sermon at the World Council of Churches in Vancouver, asserted that “to name Jesus Christ as the focal point of the meeting of divine and human nature means to me that through him all human life has been dignified.”
This explains why I felt very near to God as I sat with the beggar near my gate, and it causes me to rethink how I should respond to those in need whom I encounter today. It helps us to understand how people we sometimes view as “the least” are really Jesus in the guise of the poor. It convinces us that because all people were elevated when Jesus became the human face of God, we must therefore offer to everyone the gift of dignity.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is the immediate past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.
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