For the Least of These

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40 (NIV)

Last summer, I was teaching at a creative writing camp for youth. Yes, for writers it is like Disneyland, thanks for asking. One day, I was in charge of the group that would walk to the Botanic Gardens and spend the day gaining inspiration from the amazing displays of art (both natural and manmade). I set out with 13 teenagers at 9 AM. Half a block to Colfax. Cross without any of the girls getting hit by a car. Past a corner convenience store.

As we passed the little local shop, a woman appeared, kindly asking for help. I say appeared because she wasn’t lurking around the store, she hadn’t been sitting on the sidewalk. We were walking. Suddenly she was there.

“Are you with all of those kids?” she asks.

“Why do you ask?” I’m cautious. I’m responsible for their safety, and I can’t let them get too far ahead. They don’t know where they’re going.

“Could any of you spare a little food?”

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to not be cynical about all of those corner beggars that are becoming more and more prevalent. I understand times are hard, but you always hear those stories of people making a great living by asking for freebies. This woman wasn’t like that. She seemed a little distressed. My group kept walking. They were almost to the next block.

“I’m sorry ma’am. I can’t ask these kids to give up their lunch. We have some place to be in a certain amount of time. I’m sorry.”

I walked away, my backpack weighed down by a box of granola bars and my own lunch. Why didn’t I give her my sandwich? Or at least half? Why didn’t I give her my granola bar? I might have been a little hungrier that day, but I had two credit cards in my wallet. I could have purchased lunch at a cafe in the gardens. Yet, I walked away.

Jesus said that the most important thing is to love God with all your heart, soul, body, and mind. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor. At that moment in time, this poor woman was my neighbor. Literally. She was standing beside me.

What’s my problem?

I was afraid. I was working in a non-church situation with non-churched kids. I was worried about spending money. I was worried about having blood-sugar issues. I was scared of making a sacrifice that I didn’t plan on making. Every comment I’ve ever made about needing to take care of the poor was rendered useless in that one moment. Oh me of little faith. Me of little action.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus talks about taking care of the poor, giving them the coat off your back, giving them a place to sleep when it’s cold and rainy, filling their tummies for a day. I couldn’t even let go of a half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That woman most likely didn’t starve to death.She probably doesn’t remember me. The saddest bit of all, though, is that I had a chance to be Jesus to her. I had a chance to be God’s answer to her prayers for just a bite to eat. She also could have been a lazy freeloader. She may have been an angel. But it isn’t my responsibility to choose who I serve and who I don’t. It’s my responsibility to let my words, and actions, and choices point every person I encounter toward the throne of God.

We never know when God is going to drop us into a moment where we have only a nanosecond to decide and act. It’s easy to give sacrificially when it’s on our terms. But when it comes out of nowhere, my natural reaction is the deer-in-the-headlights look and a  “no, thank you.”

My lunch didn’t taste so good that day. Neither did my humble pie.

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