Recently, in a big-box store parking lot my mother was approached by a man asking for cash, with a hard luck story. He said needed it for gas, to take his wife to a doctor whose office was 40 miles away, and their gas tank was sitting on empty. I’ve had this experience myself, and at least for me, my natural instinct is to be suspicious. I wonder why this is so. Am I just naturally wary of strangers? Maybe I have an ancient mechanism implanted in my DNA, from back when a stranger approaching from the horizon usually was an ominous thing. Maybe my instinct hears echoes from the past: He’s not with us. What tribe does he come from? Are there others with him? What does this mean? But then my contemporary spin on this is more like: Am I being suckered here by some con artist? So, what am I to think about a street person in particular and the poor in general?
As I reflected on my own reaction to a street person in need, I thought of the story of Abraham’s debate with God over the fate of the city of Sodom and Gomorrah from the book of Genesis. God shares with Abraham his intention of destroying the city because of its sin. Abraham sees a great injustice in destroying an entire city, if there are innocent people there as well, so he begins to discuss this with God:
Then Abraham drew near and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous people in the city: would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of fifty righteous people within it?”
Genesis 18: 23-24
And so begins Abraham’s debate with God. It’s incredibly presumptuous of Abraham to barter with God in this exchange if you think about it. But he is speaking up for the innocent of Sodom and Gomorrah -no less than six times, persuading God to not destroy the city if but 10 righteous people can be found. Unfortunately for Sodom and Gomorrah, even this tiny segment of innocent people of their city could not be identified, and so the city and all her residents were destroyed. Personally, I question God’s hurling the fire and brimstone onto the city. My guess, a volcano happened to erupt and later the event was attributed to God… but the larger point of the story is, God was willing to spare the city of many thousands of people, if but 10 good folks could be found. The story is about God’s forgiveness, mercy, and God’s extraordinary willingness to give the people of Sodom and Gomorrah the benefit of the doubt. I’m also reminded of Pope Francis’ response recently when asked about gays and lesbians: “Who am I to judge?” For me, that would apply to the poor, the homeless, the suffering as well, who am I to judge?
And what about my mom’s experience with the man in the parking lot? I loved it: she gave him some cash, with this thought: if you are truly needy, I do hope this helps. If you are just scamming me, well…that’s something you’ll have to live with –that’s on you. You and your wife are in my prayers, and I wish you well. In other words, either way, I’m not judging you, or your situation. I offer my assistance with no strings attached, and I wish you well. Her gift became a gift from her heart. With her final words, she cut loose the strings, and left the matter between the man and God. Thanks mom, for continuing to teach us lessons, as the loving mother you are.