Have you ever had that experience talking to a homeless person on a street corner and the sob-story comes pouring out, but the more you listen and ask a few nosey questions somehow the facts just don’t seem to add up? I mean you hate to think this person, who obviously has needs, is just flat out lying to you, but you start feeling suspicious that maybe they are. Sound familiar?
I have had this experience many times, and I have heard my friends of means describe this type of experience too. And being lied to has a way of putting a really bad taste in my mouth. You too???
Cops hate it too. They pull people over for speeding or a busted tail light and get sob-stories that don’t add up all the time. They tell me that if you treat them with respect and honesty, it is much more likely that they MIGHT not give you the ticket!
If that is true for cops, then I figure it goes for people of means trying to relate with the homeless on a street corner too. Not only does this guy reek of urine and booze, but he really seems to be lying about how the cops hassled him, the shelter kicked him out for no good reason, and “some guy” stole all his stuff last night! Yeah, been there; done that! And now that the guy is beneath your contempt, you either don’t want to serve him or you regret that you did and somehow the next bum you meet is gonna pay for the sins of the last one.
How about we deal with this differently?
You could just send the guy down to the nearest soup kitchen or shelter and let them deal with him. There is a good chance they already know him. If not, there is a good chance they will want his ID (which he may not have). But if you are going to be proactive about that, you probably should have those phone numbers and addresses written down ahead of time on a little card you can give to the bum and send him away. But that is starting to turn into red tape in its own rite for both him and you. It is highly impersonal and no kind of sacrifice for you.
You did want to help… right? So, lets see if we can cut through the crap and red tape.
First off, a little understanding is in order here. If you are a disciple of Jesus, you want to serve him, AND Jesus claims that “the least of these brothers [and sisters ARE HIM]” (Matt. 25:40). He does not say “the honest brothers and sisters” but “the least”! And this bum qualifies. So treating him with dignity is going to be seen in heaven and it will matter there. This is of first importance! How do you want Jesus to say he was treated by you in this life? However you answer that question is how you should treat this person. Judgment hangs in the balance (read the whole pericope to see what I mean).
Secondly, keep in mind that people living on the streets, more often than not, suffer mental illness, are former inmates in jails and prisons (or other kinds of institutional living situations), are suffering addictions OR war related PTSD. Any, or all, of these things play a part in causing a person to behave in manipulative ways – including lying! And anyway, anyone living on the streets is in survival mode. You are a stranger to them too. They have one shot at gaining your sympathy and help, they will do whatever they think best, including manipulative lies, to maximize their chances with you – as much out of desperation as anything. (Think of the last time you were pulled over by a cop. Did you feel the temptation to play on her sympathies and try to maximize your chances?)
If you have a little understanding of both of these dynamics, you should be able to ward off the feeling of offense and contempt. You need to keep in mind that you are serving Jesus here, not the lies. This person has innate value and should be treated by fellow human beings better than he treats himself. Cut through the chatter, serve the need – with sacrifice. If the bum’s mind is not just totally wasted on drugs or mental illness, this will bring conviction into their heart. If not, then like heaping burning coals on your enemy’s head, you will have reward in heaven (Prov. 25:22). But really, with time, patience, and RELATIONSHIP you will find new places in the heart, and no shelter service or soup kitchen is ever going to do that serving hundreds at a time with all the red tape. But you will, IF YOU KEEP YOUR COOL.