I always visit the Place de la Bastille and I’m never sure why; of all the sites in the world of massive historical significance, it must be one of the duller ones. I emerged from the metro, remembered that it’s mainly just a big traffic intersection with a column, and decided to head straight back onto the metro to find somewhere to eat pastries. Priorities. No sooner had the doors closed than I heard a noise that made me shiver. It was the sound of poverty.
There, coming up the centre aisle of the metro carriage, was the image of a person in need. He wore no shoes and his clothes, or what was left of them, were torn. He was engrained with dirt and had a small quilt resting on his head and covering the shoulders of his under nourished frame. He was unshaven and weather beaten and wore the look of a man who has been broken and has nothing left but a desperate scrap for survival. He walked slowly up the aisle pleading for anything people would give him.
I’m not new to the Paris Metro, I know that it often contains a menagerie of beggars and buskers and conmen and thieves but this guy? This guy was something different. This guy was the real deal – so obviously desperate and broken that to look at him provoked an intense feeling of distress. I looked around the carriage, after all they do say ‘when in Rome’ – I assumed the same goes for Paris, and I watched as people turned away and avoided eye contact.
I did the same. I looked down at my bags. Don’t look, Pete, because then you’ll have to answer some very complicated questions about how this can be so, and whether you can even help, and if he’s genuine – only that won’t really be a question because the genuineness of his plight has already infected the whole carriage with an air of awkward and pained silence. Don’t look, don’t raise his hopes for what you cannot provide. Don’t look, no one look, then we won’t have to ask ourselves what we can do for him.
Don’t look, Pete, because then you’ll have to answer some very complicated questions about how this can be so, and whether you can even help…
He passed. Someone further up give him a cigarette, which he immediately lit up; there’s no smoking, on the metro, but I couldn’t possibly object to him taking what little comfort had been given. I got off shortly afterwards. He carried on. It’s a little over a euro to take a trip on the metro and once on, as long as you don’t leave a station, you can stay warm and dry all day.
I mentioned this to friend later and we talked a little about the homelessness and poverty in the city. Then we moved on to brighter and perkier subjects, ate some cake, and the whole thing slipped from my mind. Until, that is, I started preparing a message I gave yesterday about Compassion. As part of my prep I was looking at the way people are made in God’s image; I thought about how sometimes that’s easy to see, like in people we highly esteem, but sometimes so much harder to see.
We can feel it easy to see Jesus in those we admire, but it’s a lot harder to see Him in the broken and poor. It can be easy to see Jesus in Mother Teresa, but so much harder to do what she did and see Him in the ones she helped.
Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25:31-46 that what we do for the least of these we do for Him and, conversely, when we refuse to help those in need? We’re refusing to help Him.
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
– Matthew 25:40 (ESV)
As I thought this over I felt God press upon my heart the reality of that. I remembered everything about that man on the metro. I remembered the feeling in my heart at that moment, something so powerful and alarming. I remembered that I saw a very real need and my response was to turn my face away. I failed, that day.
I don’t always know how we can help people. I’m an advocate for Compassion because I see in them a beautiful way to help the poor. I know in my heart, however, that alone is not enough. If I am to be Jesus to my world then I need to be able to help the real needs I see.
Sometimes we can struggle to know how to help the homeless and the broken close to home. We struggle to know what to do, but I know what Jesus said and that knowledge means I know that we need to find a way.
I am reminded of Peter and John at the Beautiful gate: “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6) I don’t always know the answer to helping, I’m still looking, but I know that somewhere? It has to involve showing the love of Christ so they can get back on their feet.