“That’s because you’re not looking,” responded Charlie with an element of scorn. “We live right here among you but you go about in your bubble as if we didn’t exist. We don’t commute to work with you. We don’t shop in your stores. We never make your dinner-party guest lists. We don’t feel welcome in your churches. But we’re still here. We’re your neighbors…and we’re growing in number.”
Most big cities have a skid row—an area beset with flophouses, crack houses, rundown bars, and abandoned buildings. It’s where the observable homeless tend to congregate, often sitting or laying on the sidewalks, or traversing the concrete like zombies on patrol. It’s a place where raw emotions rest precariously close to the surface.
To the priest and the Levite, the person in need was essentially invisible. They sensed an awkward situation but didn’t see the heart of the matter. They looked away like many important and busy people of faith still do today. And when you look away enough times, you train yourself not to see who’s right in front of you.
Never religious, Darby determined it was time to seek help from the spiritual community. She went to a church that reminded her a lot of one near her childhood home. The pastor was friendly enough, but when Darby asked if the church had some place she and the kids could stay until she got back on her feet, he replied, “We’re not really set up to do that kind of thing. But you might try County Social Services.”
Without an income and with a history of substance abuse, Keith qualified for a free residence under the Shelter Plus Care Program, managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He was given the keys to an apartment and requested to see a substance-abuse counselor weekly. The counselor had an unmanageable caseload. He and Keith met only once.
It’s fairly basic. The “goats” in the story have never availed themselves of Jesus’ saving grace—and their actions show it. On the other hand, the “sheep” are already recipients of His gift. That’s a given. Thus, the “sheep’s” response to the “least of these” has nothing at all to do with the procurement of their salvation; it is very simply the proof of their salvation. That is to say, if you are a genuine follower of Jesus, service to the “least of these” will simply be second nature.
There is no shortage of churches today proclaiming themselves to be warm and welcoming. But the whole cannot genuinely bring to bear what the individual parts do not posses. Invisible neighbors do not want to be absorbed into a congregation of perky people; they long to be taken in by compassionate individuals who willingly share their provisions and perspectives, homes and hearts. Going forward, the churches that will make a real difference in our world—and maybe even the ones that will survive—are the ones that can rekindle a perspective on hospitality such as they had in the first-century church.
And probably, somewhere closer than you think, a rusty van is parked in a blind alley. The woman and child inside just finished a dinner of crackers and peanut butter, washed down with water. In a little while they will roll out the carpet remnant they use for a mattress. They’ll cover themselves with a thin blanket and say a prayer that their vehicle will not draw the attention of vandals or police during the night. Tomorrow they will check out the local rescue mission to see if they can get something hot to eat, and possibly a heavier blanket.
Some missions have a youth center in the city or a camp in the country that utilize volunteers. In these settings, they work with young people who are likely candidates to be mission residents. The emphasis is on building relationships and doing prevention counseling so that later they don’t have to do rehabilitation counseling.
When a person becomes a child of God, the inherent desire to demonstrate His character finds an obvious outlet among the disadvantaged. Even for neophyte followers of Jesus, the instructions found in Scripture are plain and plentiful. Offering present help and eternal hope to neighbors in need underscores that fact that the Gospel is not as much about life after death as it is life instead of death.
So be prepared. Amazing things can happen in the days ahead if we understand the church is people, not place, and the chatter about causes doesn’t mute the clearly articulated message of the cross.
Why do you think some people seem content to be chronically homeless and even resist people’s efforts to help them? What might it take connect with such people and provide them with assistance?
What characteristics of Jesus do you think would be most attractive to a runaway? In light of Hebrews 13:3, as paraphrased in The Message, how would you start to relate to a victim of domestic abuse?
Would the Underground Railroad of the nineteenth century be as successful as it was if it had to operate in the 21st century? If you said no, what would have to change to make it successful, or have societal changes taken that kind of radical hospitality away from us forever?
In the prerequisites for church leaders, detailed in 1 Timothy 3:2, is the requirement to be hospitable on the same par as the others listed, or is it optional? Are people who say they don’t have the “gift” of hospitality off the hook in this whole area?
How does James 2:14-24 help us understand Matthew 25:31-46? Do you think that the interlinking of faith and works is fully understood in most churches today?
If our political authorities behave in ways with which we disagree, or appropriate public funds for programs we oppose, what does Romans 13:1-7 suggest we do or not do? How does this Scripture passage apply to us in modern, pluralistic democracies?
In Matthew 19:20-22, did Jesus actually mean that the young man should sell everything he had and give it to the poor? Is that same advice applicable to all Christ-followers or just those who are caught up in their wealth?
What position should Christ-followers take on undocumented immigrants and their access to services in the country where they are living? If a known undocumented immigrant came to you in need would you assist him or her or contact the authorities?
When you consider the volunteer roles available at a gospel rescue mission, which one could you see yourself doing? How could your known spiritual gifts be exercised at a gospel rescue mission?
As a follower of Jesus, in what ways do you think you have “more and better life” than someone who isn’t one of His followers? Without using “church speak,” how would you describe to an invisible neighbor what to expect if he or she chooses to follow Jesus?
To set the proper mood for you small-group study or to create the right atmosphere for your church-wide series, download and use these royalty-free songs:
Other Music to Consider:
All the Poor and Powerless
All Sons & Daughters
Better Than a Hallelujah
Bread and Water
Not Too Far From Here
My Own Little World
The Twenty-First Time
Monk & Neagle
There’s Always a Place at the Table
Gaither Vocal band
What If She’s an Angel
Tommy Shane Steiner