Another day, another dollar. The same old grind. Up in the morning early enough to enjoy a few minutes of one of the few things that gives Jacob joy, that satisfying aroma of prepackaged coffee grinds in individual cups for easy dispensation. This is his few short moments of solitude and relaxation satiated by the black cup of addiction. Then off to work from his “humble” home atop the west side hill and down east where the drive takes a turn through the more questionable parts of the city. But it’s only momentarily Jacob must endure seeing the unkempt yards, broken down cars, and unpainted siding. Then it’s on to the smooth, clean freeway and soon after his highly ordered cubicle of dominion.
His back pain transformed from a dull ache to a sharp sting after so many hours of Quasimodo-like posture in a chair whose only benefit is it’s ability to swivel and traverse the thinly carpeted landscape by that marvelous invention: the wheel. Always keep moving. Like the mass-produced cups of air-sealed coffee ready to be penetrated with steaming hot water, efficiency is key. Another cup is needed so he can stay sharp. The quicker Jacob can complete his tasks the sooner he can not work past the progressive 8-hour daily assignment his predecessors and liberators from the Industrial Revolution had granted him. Another dollar, another day.
Jacob utilized every hour expertly yet still worked into the overtime range on his own dime so to get ahead on tomorrow’s tasks and show his worthiness of the upcoming promotion he’s been desperately seeking. Now here comes the moment he always dreads on the return home. He’s hungry, tired, irritable. All Jacob wants is to see his wife and two-year-old. Maybe tonight some typical afternoon fire won’t actually need to be put out and he can finally experience some leisure with his loved ones before leaving for the church small group meeting later in the evening. It’s doubtful, but hope has been the only fuel making this drive easier.
And yet, this checkpoint has guaranteed its difficulty.
It’s the Freya/2nd intersection. And there she is. The same elderly woman for the 4th time in a row. How can this be? Jacob has made this drive, what? Hundreds of times? Never once has there been the same homeless person successively at the same time of day on this strangely active corner just off the freeway. If it was another day, then it was another disheveled non-working outcast asking for a dollar. Maybe a not-that-old “war” vet whose mind had taken a turn for the worse after his return to civilian-hood. Or maybe it would be a spunky younger woman with blue hair, a tiny dog, and a creative beggar’s sign that might say: “Asking For Smiles (money’s a bonus).” There was always a different story. People would get what they need, and then move on to a new spot. Like clockwork.
But not this woman. This woman had the gall to camp. Today was a brisk afternoon and she wore the same random assortment of scavenged clothes she wore yesterday. A bright red Mickey Mouse sweatshirt is visible behind the clearly men’s size large, open winter coat. The hood shadowed much of her droopy, perpetually frowning face. Her lips were non-existent. Eyes surely faking a deep sadness in hopes of converting sympathy to booze money. The slightly damp cardboard cutout, as usual, said “Anything Hel-”
Wait. What’s this? No. That isn’t the same sign as yesterday. Today her sign says something weirdly different. “Oh my Lord,” Jacob whispered to himself. This new sign … is repulsive. But how could she?! The audacity. The unabashed sacrilege. Jacob couldn’t believe his eyes. Today this camping guilt-tripper held a sign that said: “I am Jesus Christ give me glory.”
Jacob scoffed to his own audible surprise. He needed a double-take to confirm his outrage. Now the red light seemed to hold forever as, unlike with his typical reaction to these wandering city zombies, Jacob held a gaze through the tint of his Ray-Bans at her unwavering grimace. He didn’t care. Staring her down was as much a punishment as anything for her crime against his Jesus. There is only one King. Only one God that Jacob prays to, who died for her sins as well as his. And here this woman was, not working, out here on this corner probably through a series of incredibly irresponsible choices; not even begging but rather now claiming to be the sinless Savior of the world deserving of his glory.
Jacob couldn’t wait to tell his bible study group tonight of this heresy.
Dinner is rushed by way of a pre-made casserole sealed with cellophane for optimal freshness after being transported by the hundreds to the local higher end grocer and marketed sophisticatedly with all natural, organic ingredients. The sitter is late to watch the baby which really pissed Jacob off as he and his wife got into a small, bickering argument on their way to small group. Thankfully he didn’t repeat wearing the same striped polo shirt stitched by a widow in a Bangladesh sweatshop and sold off the back of a thin, healthy, obviously caucasian-figure embodied within a faceless mannequin for a 400% markup from the local mall as his buddy Blake this week. That was mildly embarrassing last time. They both wore similar, ironed polos that their wives prepared, of course. But at least the stripes were different colors.
A new person is at Joel’s house this time, who emerged from the bathroom only moments after Jacob had greeted the others with convincing grins and their usual playful jokes.
Now it is important here to break from the cliche, 3rd-person storytelling that has meandered on thus far and insist that you the reader imagine this new character as a young man in his late twenties with a race that is not caucasian white. He is dressed nicely, has sincere eyes, neither of which are exclusive to whiteness by the way, but he is of a racial minority for you to decide. Since the story so far has been predictably on the nose about Jacob’s ignorance of his own unintentional submersion into American white culture this new character will symbolize an ulterior perspective that will shake Jacob from his exhausting comfort zone. Yes this may sound all so nauseatingly “progressive” or “liberal” as if I the narrator am insinuating some version of white guilt you should be feeling if you happen to own such a skin color, but I insist that this is not the intention at all. This is simply a tactic to temporarily use racial imagination to emphasize the coming challenge against Jacob’s status quo. Its success will be up for you to decide by the end.
“Jakey this is Robert,” Joel said as Jacob reached out for a shake, feeling the moistness of the stranger’s freshly washed hands and sensing his nervousness about whether Jacob will correctly identify the slight wetness as undried, clean water and not urine. “He was actually a friend of mine from college,” Joel continued. “I had no idea that he became a Christian like, what was it? A year ago?”
“Almost a year and a half,” Robert said slightly chuckling. “It was on Halloween if you can believe that.” Everyone laughed a little too overtly because it seemed ironic despite not knowing whether it actually was.
Jacob was all smiles. He noticed how much he was noticing that Robert isn’t white and nearly unconsciously chastised himself for noticing it so much. But Jacob also sensed a wave of relief because he almost immediately felt drawn to Robert. For reasons he couldn’t place in that moment, Jacob appreciated his demeanor, his body language, and his non-threatening, apologetic posture. This was immediately followed by a shameful and self-aware imagination of obtaining a new friend who isn’t white, and he recognized that the feeling was a little too similar to how he felt when the church announced to the whole congregation last year that his Roll One for Romanians board game charity fundraising event victory and highest donation would be “changing lives.” But Jacob convinced himself that it wouldn’t be a friendship built on anything other than brotherhood in Christ.
After the usual formularies the group descended into the basement and began their usual personal interpretations of today’s Bible verses. As was custom, Denise praised Pastor Jim’s courage from Sunday for staying true to the Gospel without pandering to today’s toxic secular environment. Then in what must have been a convenient act of God on Jacob’s behalf the topic for the night shifted to 2 Thessalonians 3. A perfect segway to talk about the heresy he encountered earlier in the day, but hadn’t had the opportunity to post to social media yet. The event was still secretly held, patiently waiting on his tongue to be released so that others could join in his righteous scoffing.
The group leader, Titus, read a few verses aloud from the NIV, “we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it,” and then on to things like, “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
The group then went on to discuss ever so delicately what each of them thought about the problem of freeloaders. All members, if they decided to speak, made sure to preface their undying concern for the poor and the needy and how they were sure to tithe to the church so that she could provide community programs for the local people living paycheck-to-paycheck, or how they gave to organizations that provided for starving African children. But then there was the intended shift into the negative upon which Denise took the opportunity to tell the story of how she heard (from some unverified source) that statistically speaking most homeless people will use the money you give them to buy drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol. Blake mentioned how the welfare state was keeping people dependent, and thus ensuring poverty rates stay high.
Jacob noticed Robert’s unassuming silence only momentarily through his distracted half-thought. His preoccupation with finally spilling his complaint for what he saw on the way home had reached it’s boiling point.
“You know what I saw today?” he finally blurted when the opportunity was presented. “There’s been a homeless person on a corner off the freeway for a few days now and today she was holding a sign that said, ‘I am Jesus Christ give me glory.’” He paused for only the briefest of moments to read the room and then quickly decided to continue. “Like, right there in broad daylight, like, trying to get attention I guess. Can you believe that?” Denise’s mouth dropped. A few others instinctively reacted in a sort of shocked solidarity without even thinking about it. “Are you serious?” Rachel said. “Wow,” said Blake, blinking his eyes rapidly in forced theatrics.
“Yeah it was bizarre,” Jacob laughed nervously. “I mean, I can get that you want people to notice you when you’re begging, but, like, why be provocative just for the sake of it? You could probably use all that disruptive energy to get a job, right?” Everyone chuckled. Almost everyone. Jacob felt reasonable, witty, and intelligent in what he had just said.
“I think in Thessalonians Paul is criticizing freeloaders in the church here, don’t you guys think?” Robert said. The abrupt change in topic and tone was so noticeably awkward that even Joel squirmed out of his recliner to mention that he was going to quickly use the bathroom. “I’m really interested in what Robert means here,” he said. “Keep going I’ll be right back. Does anyone need anything from the kitchen?”
“No I’m good,” Jacob said almost too cheerfully. He wanted Robert to think he wasn’t bothered by anything at all.
Robert’s eyes darted from person to person sheepishly. “Well the letter itself is to the church in Thessalonica right?” he continued. “And in verse 6 he tells them to keep away from every believer who is idle. That seems to be the context that’s he working off of. It’s believers who aren’t allowed to be given anything if they don’t work. He has a higher standard for them. At least I think that’s what he means. The church should give to only the truly needy within the church because there needs to be discipline and unity among them. There isn’t much to be said about those outside the church here.”
“Yeah that sounds right,” Jacob said. “The church definitely should be held to a higher standard. But … I don’t know. There is a problem of people refusing to work in general, too. Like, put it this way. Don’t you also think that if you keep giving to any person, not just those in the church, who refuses to work it will just enable them to think that they don’t ever need to work since they can always count on you to keep giving them handouts?” He grinned and quickly added, “And when I say you I mean it completely rhetorically of course.”
“No yeah, that is a good point,” Robert replied. “There is a difficult tension there that actually you can find in history all the way back to the beginning. It existed for Christians in how they treated those within and outside the church even.
“Like for example, you got in super early Christianity like in the writings of the Didache it says to give to everyone and don’t ask for anything back, which in that time to not expect anything in return would imply you’re giving pretty recklessly to anyone without much consideration since reciprocity was kind of expected to help with your giving. And what’s really interesting is even early non-Christians — I think it was Lucian from the 2nd or 3rd century, he was like a pagan satirical writer or something — who says something about a guy he knew who posed as needy to the Christians and was able to acquire sudden wealth from them. So there’s evidence that people were freeloading off the Christians because of their hyper-generosity and it seems they didn’t put too much thought into the problem.
“But then, interestingly enough, also in the Didache in the same chapter where it says to give to anyone with what appears to be a reckless charity it also warns about giving to those that don’t really need it. And then basically says that those people will be judged by God if they accept a gift they don’t really need. But it even says, and I remember this because it’s a dramatic image, that your gift should sweat in your hands while you decide if the recipient is deserving, because if you’re holding on to your coin with a clenched fist in the Middle Eastern heat then your palm is going to sweat.
“So, yeah. There’s always been a tension about this. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. How prudent are we supposed to be? For us who have enough to give, how much are we allowed to judge the poor to decide if they’re worthy of receiving?”
Phones began to emerge from the group members’ pockets. “I don’t think we’re judging them,” Jacob said. “But if I know someone is, like, an alcoholic, and I know that if I give them $10 that they’re gonna go buy a bunch of beer, then it would be in their best interest if I didn’t give them the money, right.”
“No, no, no, I totally agree,” Robert said. “Sorry, I’m kind of bouncing all over the place and probably strayed from the original topic. I’m just interested in what the church’s mindset is to begin with. What does the church prioritize first in how its heart is oriented?
“I’m reminded of something Jonathan Edwards said, where he says something like, ‘When our neighbor is in trouble, he is afflicted; and we should have such a loving spirit for him, that we are afflicted with him in his affliction.’ Which he’s riffing off the Gospel here because of how Christ became destitute for the destitute. Became sin for the sinners. So we should mirror Christ in this way since he made himself the poor, I think that’s what Edwards was getting at. And then you got Matthew 25, of course, where Jesus says, ‘I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. 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.’ So putting those together, there’s kind of this question that if Christ is risen and is human, is he only in heaven right now or can we find him in the world?
“It’s a big social question and a …um … what am I trying to say? A material one. Like, literally. Not only what people does Jesus align himself symbolically with, but, again, if he truly is risen, how is he manifested within creation — within humanity — in the here and now? I’m just sort of getting at what is our perception of things and the poor, you know?”
Jacob sat back with a soft, amicable smile. All attention seemed to be uncomfortably zeroed in on him as each monstrous second ticked. He opened his mouth knowing full well he didn’t have any idea what was about to come out when Denise said, “What’s the Diddy-Kay?”
The next morning Jacob woke up early to his Chinese-manufactured, elegantly American-designed smartphone and its alarm’s gentle crescendo of nature sounds and wind chimes. He shuffled quietly to the kitchen counter altar where the completely necessary digital display on his coffee maker allowed him to maximize his dwindling supply of black, powder-filled pods by the ounce. He used the GPS feature on his phone to avoid heavier areas of traffic on his commute to work. At work he utilized the office’s high-speed broadband internet to have a video chat session with their associates in France. As usual, Jacob ended the call feeling sophisticated and important. But the day was long.
It’s late and he’s hungry. His wife and daughter were staying with his in-laws tonight for their church’s Night of Tea & Trumpets musical event the next day in the town over. Jacob has been thinking about this all day. His mouth salivated for the thinly sliced beef layered and smothered in the restaurant’s trademarked specialty sauce which only they have the recipe for. Jacob is sure that people criticize him for stating that his favorite restaurant in the whole wide world is a nationwide franchise deli-ish sandwich pusher. But Jacob doesn’t care. He also doesn’t know how they acquire their abundance of beef every day by the untold tons upon tons and he’s never given the conundrum any thought.
It’s been so long since he’s had this sandwich. The sourdough bread. The melted cheese. The savory grilled onions. It’s a swirling multitude of expertly crafted flavors through each bite — one might say — all sandwiched together into one cohesive culinary experience.
There it sat in his passenger seat practically burning a hole through the light tan leather. His mouth watered as he could almost taste the first bite. Then Jacob took the exit and headed toward the Freya/2nd intersection. He waited at the red light, attempting to keep his head forward. But the man on the corner stood too tall. Too meagerly thin and tall. His cardboard of choice said, “Homeless and hungry. Anything helps,” with the letters of the last word scrunched tight together since he clearly misjudged how much room was left.
Jacob diverted his eyes back to the lights. They seemed to pulse an ever-growing brighter red for half a minute, one minute, two minutes. How long could they continue to shine?
He turned and approached his ascent up the hill toward home. But before he reached the hill he looked over at the sandwich and felt his stomach growl. Then he turned on his signal and pulled over. Jacob looked in his rearview mirror. He couldn’t see the corner anymore. But he sat. And so Jacob was there, in his car, stomach howling, looking in the rearview mirror.