IT WAS THE END of a long and frustrating day. I was tired and slightly cranky, so when my husband, Dan, suggested that we go out to eat I jumped at the chance. I enjoy my profession as a social worker and advocate for low-income and no-income people, but on days like this one, when change seems slow and the obstacles enormous, I can welcome turning my back on the pain of poverty and sinking my teeth into a big juicy steak.
I had to settle for a submarine sandwich. I was hungry, and when the sandwiches arrived I quickly fell to eating. Our seven-year-old daughter, Jessica, shot me a withering look. "Mother," she said in a shocked tone of voice, "you forgot to pray!" I was hardly in the mood to be reprimanded by a first-grader. I'm not even sure how grateful I felt for my steak substitute. However, to keep the peace and set an example I quickly mumbled a rote and mechanical prayer: "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest. Amen." Jessica seemed satisfied. If she noticed my lack of sincerity, she was wise enough not to comment.
As we began eating, a stranger, who had been watching us, came over to our table. "Oh, no!" I thought as I eyed the homeless man with the tattered clothes and the crippled foot. "Isn't it enough that I deal with problems all day? What now?" The man addressed my husband, "Please, sir. I haven't eaten all day. Can you buy me a sandwich?" Dan looked at me for my "social work" assessment. Often in working with people in crisis professionals have be selective in how and whom they help. There are not enough resources to meet all the needs that confront us. We have to engage in triage, carefully allocating scarce time, money and goods in an effort to help those who will most benefit from the assistance. In fact, there are times when direct assistance may not be beneficial, as in giving money to an alcoholic.
As I tried to make my instant analysis, I realized I had neither the benefits nor the constraints of intake forms, regulations and policies on which to base a decision. Here in the sub shop it was just one human being reaching out to another. I looked at Dan and nodded. He winked at me, stood up and told the man, "Sure. Let me go with you to pay for it."
I was mindful that when the man first approached us, Jessica scooted over in her seat to be close to me. Her eyes grew wide, and she seemed afraid of the stranger with a strange odor. As her dad walked away with the man she whispered, "Mommy, what are they doing?" I reassured her that it was all right. "The man is hungry and Daddy is buying him a sandwich," I said. "But why?" she asked. Thinking that she was asking why the man was hungry, I explained that he didn't have any money and probably hadn't eaten for a while. "I know, Mom, but why is Daddy buying him a sandwich?" she pressed. The answer "because he is hungry" did not seem to satisfy her.
I thought about it. Why was my husband buying the man a sandwich? I asked Jessica what she thought. "Well, I'm sure God and Jesus would think it was a good idea."
"Yes," I replied, "God doesn't want people to be hungry, and it makes God happy when we help one another." This seemed to make sense to her, but she still wanted to keep her eye on her dad for safekeeping.
As I watched her watch them with obvious apprehension, I grew concerned. I didn't want her to feel that helping others was an onerous chore and duty. I realized that when I approached my work that way I became discouraged and burnt out, but when I operated out of grace instead of guilt my interactions with people left me energized and fulfilled.
"Jessica," I began, "another reason Daddy is giving the man some food is because of something Jesus once said. He said that when you give a cup of water or some food to one of his children, it is just like giving it to him."
"Just like giving it to Jesus?" she asked incredulously. "Yes," I answered. "Jesus often comes to us in poor and hurting people."
"Wow!" she said, her eyes bright. "Excuse one, mom." She slipped away and went to stand with her father and the man as they awaited his order. Jessica stared up at the homeless man with awe. The fear was gone as she inched closer to him. Reading the look in her face, I knew she had taken my words quite literally. She wanted to be close to Jesus.
As I saw the man in the eyes of my child, I too could see Christ incarnate. I was flooded with a sense of wonder. Gone was my tiredness, my crankiness, my ingratitude. I whispered a prayer, which this time was heartfelt, thanking God for this reminder of who he was. I was struck anew that the work I do is a privilege. My clients are not objects of need who should be grateful for the charity that I bestow. Rather, they bring Jesus himself to me and I am the one who is blessed.
Dan and Jessica returned to the table alone. The man declined an invitation to join us and instead departed, whispering his thanks. He graced our table with his presence all the same. The atmosphere of our shared meal had been transformed. Jessica sensed it too, and said, "Mommy, your prayer was answered."
"What do you mean, honey?" I had all but forgotten about my hasty table grace.
"Well, you asked for Jesus to be our guest, and he really did come!"
Sara L. Barwinski, The Christian CENTURY (issue unknown), page 520.