I’m picking up a prescription on my lunch hour. January 2016. It’s cold and overcast. The clouds look like cotton dipped in gunpowder. I’m driving away when I see a figure sitting on the curb near the road, wearing a camouflage jacket and cap. He clutches a small cardboard sign, but I can’t make out the words. I pass by them and steer the car toward the road. Just as I pull away, I glance over and see three words scrawled on the cardboard: homeless and hungry.
Something lurches in my throat. I have to get back to work. What can I do? I have only a couple of dollars on me. Someone will help him.
Before I’m fifty yards down the road, a fragment of something, a phrase, flashes in my head: the least of these. I recognize it from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25.
Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
What if it was me? What if one day it’s me sitting there in the cold, with a cardboard sign? What if it’s me with no bed to sleep in at night? What if I’m the guy sitting there in an old dirty jacket, with no idea of where my next meal will come from, praying that someone will just care?
I feel the wheel turn in my hands. The car swings off the highway, enters another parking lot, and slows down. My foot taps the brake. I shut off the engine. Ignoring the cold, I huddle over a screen and punch out a code. In seconds I feel the crisp, new bill in my palm. My throat is so tight, I think my eardrums will burst.
I stuff the $20 inside my shirt pocket and swing the car back on the highway. Then something else occurs to me. What if the man is not there when I get back? What if he’s a con artist? What if the money won’t be used for food, but will be injected into his veins? Then another thought surfaces.
What if he’s not?
I nudge the car off the highway and scan the parking lot near the pharmacy. He’s still there in his cap and camouflage jacket, a little hunched over, looking sad. I pull into a parking space and get out. I walk toward him, hoping he won’t notice my eyes watering. He looks at me over his shoulder. “Hello,” he says, but I hear despair, heartbreak, shock, disbelief. Hopelessness.
I swallow a lump. “You need some help, friend?” I say, my lip trembling.
“Yes, I do,” he replies in a small voice. I lean down and hand him the twenty. I want it to be more, but at least it’s something. Maybe a meal or two. A hot cup of coffee. A slice of hope in humanity.
He glances down at his palm for a moment. “God bless you,” he says.
I nod and turn around. As I’m walking away I hear him call out, “Happy New Year!”
I climb behind the wheel and pull away. My eyes are moist and my throat aches.
But my heart feels lighter.
I’ve gone through two calendars since then. I don’t know that man’s name. I don’t know what catastrophes in his life put him on that curb in an old dirty coat on a cold January day.
I can tell you that he was one of “the least of these,” and I couldn’t drive away without doing something.
One day that could be me. 78