Years ago I flew to O’Hare for a week-long seminar on financial marketing at the University of Chicago’s business school. I awoke the first morning feeling utterly at peace after a lengthy period of inner turmoil. I found time to take a long walk down Michigan Avenue, and it was as if I were strolling through paradise: the buildings, the sidewalks, the people all seemed wondrously illuminated. I took a shortcut back to my hotel and found myself in a neighborhood that was not so nice. Suddenly I was accosted by a young panhandler with a tear in his eye and a cockamamie story about how his mother was about to be evicted from her apartment for unpaid rent. I happily emptied my pockets of change and continued on. But the boy tugged at my arm, pleading for more. I rewarded him for his persistence with a few bills from my wallet. Still, he clutched my arm, and I wound up giving him nearly all I had. I couldn’t believe I’d been such an easy mark, and yet I walked away feeling almost giddy.
What was going on with me? Here I was, an oblivious white guy in a three-piece suit strolling through a sketchy neighborhood as if it were the Garden of Eden. This was some 35 years ago, when big American cities were regarded as only marginally less hazardous than Mogadishu or Islamabad are today. I had no explanation for my sudden lapse of street smarts – indeed, I was lucky I wasn’t accosted by someone far more dangerous than this young panhandler. And yet I didn’t feel lucky; I felt blessed. Who cared if the kid’s cockamamie story turned out to be just that? I didn’t count out how much I had given him, perhaps a couple of hundred dollars at most, and there was more where that came from. I had an overwhelming sense that my bank account was no more mine than the breeze blowing off Lake Michigan. I somehow knew that what I gave of myself could not diminish me.
I became a bit more discriminating in my charitable giving after a colleague saw me emptying my pockets of change when approached by a street person in Washington, D.C. As it turned out, my colleague was a recovering alcoholic. He commended me for my generosity but suggested I was probably financing someone’s addiction. No doubt he had a point. In any case, I saw there was wisdom in intentional giving rather than scattering my largesse willy-nilly.
Jesus told people that at the Last Judgment they would be judged according to how they treated “the least of these my brethren.” To turn away from those in need, he said, is the same as to turn away from God. He specifically mentioned those who hunger and thirst, those who are naked and need clothing, those who are sick and those who are in prison. There is little doubt this list was meant to be illustrative rather than inclusive. When Jesus commanded people to love their neighbor, he meant everybody. One of his followers asked, “And who is my neighbor?” By way of an answer, Jesus told a story about a man who came to the aid of a Samaritan -- a group that was widely reviled by Jews. The “least of these” is anyone who is looked down upon for any reason.
In my more lucid moments, I understand that love works as a kind of binary system. Switch it on, and your world lights up, if only in the tiniest way. Switch it off, and some portion of your world goes dark. Consequently, we spend a lot of time stumbling around in the dark. And when we do shine our light, it tends to fall on those who are easy to love. The real test comes with those who are not – not just the unlovable but also those who seemingly don’t count for anything at all in the grand scheme of things. In my more lucid moments I see clearly that the whole world is bound together in love, and I can’t cast anyone out without also casting myself into outer darkness.