When I walked by the homeless man sleeping on a bench, I couldn’t believe he was passed out on such a busy street in downtown Washington, D.C. Then I did a double take. There was something about his feet. Maybe it was the fact he wasn’t wearing any shoes.
Then I saw the scars.
On an edge of sidewalk outside of Catholic Charities is a seven-foot-long sculpture of a homeless man shrouded in a blanket lying on a narrow park bench. “Homeless Jesus” is only identifiable by the crucifixion wounds on his feet.
The best art makes us feel. Sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz’s “Homeless Jesus” is both beautiful and convicting.
If I hadn’t have noticed the feet, I could have just as easily passed it. I might have never seen it at all.
That’s the point.
I immediately recalled the last part of Matthew 25:40: “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
What if the homeless man on the bench stood and addressed me? What if I didn’t know who he was? Would I lecture him about the importance of a man his age getting a job? He’s probably a substance abuser. Could be mentally ill. Where did he go wrong to end up in a place like this?
Sometimes I make the right call and offer a little help. Too often, I tell myself it’s just better for me to keep my head down, get back to the office and pray the homeless guy doesn’t speak to me.
We commonly refer to such conduct as “turning a blind eye,” but it’s really nothing more than refusing to see a need right in front of us.
When it comes to my politics and perspectives, I’m not a bleeding heart, but I am trying to find mine. For much of my career, I’ve been confident in my guiding principles to a fault. I told myself that if I followed the rules and applied them to the facts, I’d reach conclusions that were accurate and just. I didn’t feel the need to really see the impacts of those conclusions or those of previous generations; I simply wanted to win the argument. Over time, I’ve come to realize life requires both vision and precision.
Fatherhood has softened my harder ideological edges. My sons pattern what they see in me. I wonder whether that means they learn to stop for the man on the bench or pass him without a second thought? I need to be as confident in the answer to that question as I am my public policy ideas.
That search has pushed me to critically re-examine issues of faith, family, race, poverty and even what it means to belong–to have a real community where people give a damn about each other. It’s a genuine attempt to see life from other perspectives–to ask who isn’t in the room when I’m thinking through ideas, crafting policies, and making decisions. It’s not easy, but I’m blessed to have people patient enough with me to help that process along.
My reaction to “Homeless Jesus” was simple: I don’t want to be the man who walks past someone he needs to see. That sight leads to empathy. If I wouldn’t walk past a homeless Jesus, I shouldn’t literally or figuratively bypass those who could use my help. I needed that reminder even if I wasn’t expecting it.