I saw Christ on a street corner in Washington, D.C., disguised as an alcoholic felon. I don't often notice Christ. I can sit through entire church services and not see Him. I'll notice which worship songs are individualistic pablum; I'll remember if the sermon is more about what the Bible doesn't say, or if the pastor is bent on setting people straight. But I'll miss Jesus, occupied as I am with criticizing on His behalf. So it was unexpected, this Christ-sighting.
For I was hungry and you gave Me food, Christ called out to me as I passed. It was late; I just wanted a meal and my comfortable hotel bed. But I made the mistake of eye contact. "They spit on me!" he shouted. It was so unusual that I stopped. He was crying with frustration. Someone had given him spittle instead of money.
"I don't want no trouble," he told me. "But I'm a man. What would you do if someone spit on you?" I got the sense that he could have spoken all night, to anyone who would listen without spitting. But he realized that the uncomfortable man standing in front of him, the visitor with the roller bag, might fork over some money. He launched into his routine: just out of prison, trying to keep straight, in need of a few dollars.
I've given my share of coins to people on the street, more out of discomfort than good intent. I've read that many homeless are mentally ill, or addicted, or both. Pocket money won't do them any good. My friend Dave once took a bum to McDonald's, to be sure the guy wouldn't buy liquor with his money. The man complained when Dave handed him a Big Mac, because it had no cheese. I find myself clinging to factoids like those to justify my inaction.
Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me. I couldn't get that out of my head as I listened to the bum's pitch. "If I give you money, are you going to buy booze with it?" He looked offended. "You know how it is," I told him, doing my best to sound worldly wise. "I want to know."
His shoulders slumped, and the salesman's gleam left his eyes. "Naw, man. I just want to eat." He was tired, too.
I gave him twenty dollars, and he wept. I didn't tell him I had eighty more. The truth is that he probably did buy liquor with my twenty, and had I given him a hundred, he likely would have killed himself with booze. The truth is that I should have taken him somewhere and bought him a meal. The truth is that I was tired, and Christ comes on you so unexpectedly with His demands. It's easier to buy an indulgence than to give of myself, especially to someone so dirty and scatter-eyed.
I asked if I could pray for him. It wasn't my idea; it just overtook me, the way God sometimes does. He seized my hand, and I prayed that he would be released from his addictions. My neck burned as passersby stared. When I finished he gripped my arm, and he prayed that God would bless me. He cried harder, and tried to give back my money. I smelled wine on his breath, and marveled at how well Christ can disguise Himself.
As we parted, I was tempted to feel good about what I'd done. But I knew, in that deep-down nagging part of a Christian's heart, that I hadn't done anything at all. We deceive ourselves that we are righteous by virtue of the occasional gesture.
Flannery O'Connor wrote: "While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted." If not the South, this is true of me. I haven't thought about that bum much. But I awoke to a chill this morning, and felt the presence of Christ, reminding me of the unfinished business we have with one another. I wondered who blessed whom on that street corner, and if Christ will ever tire of coming to me in these ways, given how unfaithful I am in coming to Him.
-Tony Woodlief lives in Wichita, Kan., with his wife and four sons.