Homeless activist and honorary chair of Christian Resource Centre in Regent Park John Deacon was a guest speaker at Fairlawn Avenue United Church Social Justice Sunday on February 4, 2018.
Below is a copy of his notes:
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
Jesus replied with a story: “A man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.
“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Levite walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.” from Luke 10:25-37
The sermon title ‘dare to love your neighbour’ hardly sounds like a real dare, if we’re talking about neighbours we share the same street with. But it’s quite the dare if we’re talking about the neighbour who is beaten up and left for dead on the side of the road.
Jesus doesn’t tell us whether the man is beaten up because he is rich, or innocent, or the victim of a drug deal gone bad, or because he’s a foreigner, or transgender – the only qualifier Jesus gives about the person he wants us to think of as our neighbour is that he or she desperately needs our help, and the real test of our spirituality is how we respond. Will we take care of him or not?
Whenever I hear one of Jesus’ parables I try and locate Jesus in the parable. For some parables it’s obvious. In his parable, for instance, about the sower and the seed, Jesus is the Sower. A no brainer.
But in this parable of this Samaritan, the question of ‘where’s Jesus?’ is a little trickier. He is clearly not the two religious types who walk by the broken man pretending he isn’t there.
Jesus could be the Samaritan, but I think Jesus intentionally makes the hero of the story, an outsider, a non-Jew, someone who both his own Jewish culture and religion despised.
In Trump’s America, one can imagine Jesus’ assigning the role of hero to a Muslim; in Canada to a Metis or Inuit person.
In giving the role of hero to a Samaritan, Jesus not only elevates a despised foreigner, likely unfamiliar with the notion that to love God is to love one’s neighbour, Jesus is also relegating his role in the story to the one left for dead on the side of the road.
This would match what Jesus says elsewhere: ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:35,36,40)
Jesus not only identified with poor people, or what we might call the ‘deserving and noble poor’, he identified with the despised and alienated poor. He himself was poor. He relied on the monetary support of others, some of whom were women, who in those days were not renown for having big bank accounts. For much of his public ministry, Jesus was homeless.
He was dependent on the hospitality of others, criticized for the company he kept and estranged from the inner circles of power and influence.
His death was the epitome of a man beaten – ridiculed and flogged by the justice system, despised and condemned by the religious establishment, abandoned by his followers, mocked by his oppressors, forsaken by God, alone and left for dead.
If we see Jesus as the man beaten by the side of the road, not only in the parable of the Good Samaritan but in daily life, everything changes. It begs the question:
‘How is it that we can worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?’
Much as we might like to think of ourselves as like the Good Samaritan, we also have to admit to recognizing ourselves in the two people who pass by on the other side of the road. Life is busy, we have deadlines to meet and trains to catch. We don’t have time for those whose needs derail our agendas.
Let’s be honest. We can fool each other, but we can’t fool God. More often than not, we do pass by. If we didn’t, there would be no need for this parable, no need for a Social Justice Sunday, no need for us to provoke each other to care for the people we can so easily ignore.
What a Social Justice Sunday reminds us, as does this parable, is that we can hardly claim to be spiritually alive, if we keep our distance from those beaten down by life, whether by poverty, violence or prejudice. To be in step with God we must, to quote Fairlawn’s Embrace Action mandate:
‘step out of our silos, get to know those who are marginalized and whose Voice has been silenced…to engage our hearts, challenge stereotypes and learn why some of our neighbours live in poverty and then to advocate for systemic change.’
Not only is the Good Samaritan thorough in his care for the victim, he is deeply committed to his recovery, enlisting an innkeeper to provide care when he no longer can. Good Samaritans can’t do the good they do without involving others: whether individuals, businesses, churches, governments.
In this parable Jesus puts a face on poverty so we aren’t overwhelmed by its enormity. It is one on one. It’s personal.
When it’s personal, a son, a relative, a neighbour’s kid out on the street, or poverty moves from being too big to tackle, to something too devastating to ignore. The question of how much it will cost us goes out the window.
Sure there are a few scriptures linking poverty to laziness, drunkenness and other assorted vices, but biblically speaking, poverty’s root causes are systemic: the love of money, greed, violence, oppression, the indifference of wealthy people to the hardships poor people face.
Barbara Ehrenreich in her book ‘Nickel and Dime: On (Not) Getting by in America” tells the story of her taking leave of her big house and high paying job in Key West, Florida to work at jobs paying no more than minimum wage: waitressing, house keeping etc. She wanted to see what America looked like from the bottom up, as a member of the working poor.
She tells what it was like for her to get down on her knees and scrub toilets in a hotel where the rooms cost more per night than what she was paid per week.
Sharing the details of her budget, she showed how impossible it was to make ends meet when working on minimum wage, even with careful management, good health and no kids.
She writes: ‘the laws of of supply and demand have been reversed. Rental prices skyrocket, but wages never rise. Jobs are relatively plentiful but it takes more than one job to survive. Behind those trademark Wal-Mart vests, are ‘the borderline homeless.’
She goes on to say that “the working poor are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others can be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure deprivation, so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.’
We live in this socio-economic delusion that says that if the stock market is doing well so too is society. But nothing could be further from the truth!
Every day I thank God for street people who are the visible evidence that our society is more broken than we think.
Every day I thank God for communities like yours who understand that charity without justice only reinforces inequality…that even though the status quo works just fine for me, it is so not working for so many others: homeless people, refugees, and victims of racial hatred and abuse.
If we remain silent about the injustice and oppression they face, we are betraying our faith. We are betraying Jesus and the people he calls ‘blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’
In Shane Claiborne’s book ‘The Irresistible Revolution’, Shane tells the story of asking those “who claimed to be ‘strong followers of Jesus’ whether Jesus spent time with the poor.
Nearly 80 % said yes. He then asked this same group whether they spent time with the poor and less than 2% said they did.
Shane writes: ‘I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he said. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring for the same things. I had come to see that the great tragedy in many North American churches is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor, but that rich Christians don’t know the poor.
The one thing Jesus doesn’t include in his parable of the Good Samaritan, is what the Good Samaritan experienced in coming to the aid of his poor neighbour.
I think I know, or at least have an inkling of what he experienced.
My office window looks onto Yonge Street, just north of Adelaide in the heart of downtown Toronto. It was the winter of 1995 and looking out my window I could see that a woman had taken up residence on the sidewalk across the street. Even from a distance of 4 floors up, she looked troubled. Dressed in black and at times screaming, I was still confident in my ability to befriend her.
I had gotten fairly good at making friends with street people. My method was simple: I’d come up to them, tell them my name, asked them if I could buy them a coffee and then ask them their name. Typically, I would be received warmly. Usually they’d say ‘no’ to coffee and ‘yes’ to money and then tell me their name and something about their lives.
Some I’d see 4 or 5 times and then they’d move on. Others became so familiar they’d thought my office a 2nd home, dropping in whenever they thought I might be working too hard. Some have become my closest friends.
But in approaching this woman, there was no way she wanted anything to do with me. She’d yell and swear and give me the finger. Every so often I’d try again but with no success.
After 8 years, I had pretty much given up. Until one summer’s day in late July, I was walking down the east side of Yonge Street, and across from where she was, ran into Lucas, a twenty something street kid.
‘Can you do me a favour?’ he asked me.
‘Anything,’ I replied.
‘I want you to give this can of Sprite to the woman across the street’ he replied.
I told him ‘no way because anytime I come near her, she screams at me.’
‘Just tell her,’ Lucas instructed me, ‘that Lucas wants you to have this.’
I said ‘yes’ and slowly made my way across the street.
As I approached, I told her not to get upset with me, that Lucas wanted her to have this.
She looked up at me, took the can of cold pop from me and smiled.
It was another 3 years before she said yes to my giving her anything else.
One day, in saying hello to her, she asked if I could get her a ‘Filet-O-Fish’ and a double double large tea.
4 years after that, I was standing in line in McDonalds to get her two orders of fries, when I looked behind me and there she was. In line. She had followed me into the restaurant. One of the staff called her by name. ‘Grace’ she called her, whereas to that time I had been calling her Amanda.
Then just before Christmas 2010, I asked her if we could grab lunch together and Grace agreed.
I can’t remember what we talked about. All I remember was her speech was disjointed and garbled. She was friendly.
It was a start of a friendship, albeit 15 years in the making.
When I came back from Christmas holidays in early 2011, I noticed she was no longer on the street.
I called a friend well connected with various social agencies to ask around if anyone had seen her. He called me 3 months later to assure me she was alright, living in the west end of the City.
4 months after that, I was crossing King Street on a summer afternoon when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned around and it was Grace. She was wearing a floral top with a green skirt, 100 miles from the charcoal black uniform she had worn for years. She was eating an ice-cream cone and smiling.
I walked with her for about half a block before we parted ways. I was flabbergasted by the transformation. I found myself thanking God for slow miracles. The miracles so slow that they allow people like you and I to become involved in them.
For weeks after I pondered the role I had played in Grace’s transformation. Clearly I wasn’t the Good Samaritan nor the innkeeper. More like the donkey. I had helped carry her from one meal to the next. I felt overwhelmingly fulfilled.
The experience renewed my commitment to look for other Graces.
That’s the real dare in loving our neighbour.
The dare of loving people who don’t fit the mould.
The dare of being yelled at, of being misunderstood.
The dare of giving them what they need in exchange for what they give amply in return: humility, gratitude, faith, resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.
The dare of seeing everything change: the way we do business, the way we do politics, the way we do church, so that no one is left out.
As Isaiah wrote centuries ago:
Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.