After preaching the Parable of the Good Samaritan at the Gallery Church, I headed to Harlem for dinner with my girlfriend, Liz. As we climbed the stairs to exit the subway, I saw him—a homeless man, begging for change. “Can I have a dollar?” he asked passersby, who looked down at the ground instead of into his eyes, refusing to acknowledge his humanity.
I, too, looked away and continued walking. With each step, though, my feet got heavier and heavier—to the point that I could no longer continue moving forward. I heard two voices. One was the faint, defeated voice of the man asking for change. The other was my own, reciting the remnants of that morning’s sermon. I thought to myself, “You are the priest and the Levite who walked by, but ‘the one who showed him mercy.’ . . . You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Seeds of Dehumanization
People vulnerable to exploitation are everywhere, but they are sometimes hard to see because their vulnerability often masks itself as poverty, hunger, homelessness, or something else. When we do not see them, though, we dehumanize the people God loves and values. In Generous Justice, Tim Keller writes, “Jesus taught that a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor lapse, but reveals that something is seriously wrong with one’s spiritual compass, the heart.” In other words, a heart not bent toward grace and mercy has not experienced true compassion. When we ignore the poor, we show that we have not yet understood our own poverty.
Dehumanization, the active refusal to recognize the image of God in others, is at the heart of every form of exploitation. Although it’s especially obvious in the commercial sex and labor trade, where the individual is seen merely as a commodity to be bought and sold, we show that the seeds of dehumanization live in our own hearts every time we ignore the image of God in our neighbors.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus does not explore possible reasons for which the priest and the Levite walk by the vulnerable man. He does not say, for example, “Maybe they do not want to be taken advantage of” or “Maybe the priest wants to remain ritually pure.” Their reasons are irrelevant because they are actively choosing to walk away and not show compassion. They do not love their neighbor as they love themselves. Self-protection, fear, and apathy are not excuses for passing by; they are indicators that reveal our hearts.
Jesus wants us not only to identify with the priest and the Levite; he also wants us to see our neediness in the vulnerable man. That man might be half dead, but we were completely dead—dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1). Yet Christ did not leave us to be the living dead. On the cross, he did not merely risk his life or purity to help us; he freely gave it. Today, he speaks life into our death—even when we cannot love him or anyone else. He comes to our brokenness and vulnerability to rescue us by his grace. In this way, Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan.
With this parable in mind, I turned around and began talking to the man—whose name, I discovered, was Timothy or “Dreads,” as he liked to be called. As I looked in his eyes, his face brightened up. I asked him what he needed, and he told me he just wanted a sandwich. So we went to the local convenience store, and I told him to order whatever he wanted. As we ate together, he told us how excited he was to spend time with us. He invited us to swing by his shelter. He gave us the number of his new prepaid cell phone.
As he shared his story with us, I began to notice a change in my own heart. In response to God’s free grace, I acted in compassion and generosity. The gospel freed me to protect him, not myself. It opened my eyes to see him as someone God loves, which empowered me to acknowledge his dignity as someone God loves, not a mere statistic. I would like to say that we became great friends at that moment, but the truth is that we lost touch.
A year later, though, I was standing on the street, waiting to go into a meeting, when I noticed a man begging on the side of the road. As he looked down, he asked each passerby for change. He seemed weak, weathered by a harsh life. I walked up to him and talked with him. “I love this town,” he said. Shocked, I asked, “Why?” He replied, “Because people like you stop and talk.” Something about him seemed eerily familiar. I asked his name, and he said Tim. I smiled. “We’ve met!” He replied, “Yes, I thought it was you. I remember when you bought me that sandwich last year.”
Return the Dignity
The gospel reminds us that Christ loved us when we had no capacity or desire to love him back. This transformational love sets us free from the shackles of comfort and self-protection to care for our neighbors.
As the director of Justice Ministries at the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association, I am often asked, “What should my first step be in fighting exploitation?” My answer is simple: “Give value to those whom you have devalued. Show mercy because you have been shown mercy.”