One of my favorite Bible stories goes like this: two men went down the road to Emmaus, and ran into a third man, who explained something to them that they didn’t understand. At dinner, their new companion blessed the food, broke the loaf, and was gone — leaving two men at a table with three pieces of bread, knowing that they had spent the day in the presence of Jesus. Their eyes hadn’t seen what their hearts already knew.
I love this tale because it ties together several passages at the heart of my faith. First is, “As you do to the least of these, you do also to me,” and its parallel, “I will not always be with you [to honor me], but the poor will always be with you.” And then there are the greatest commandments: “Love your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The road to Emmaus shows me why these commandments were given: if I do not know who walks beside me, then I have to love my neighbors, because they might be my God. So when I see street folk with their hands out, I try to stop to talk, to give them a dollar or two. I don’t know who I’m feeding, or who I’m talking to… and when I pass them by (as I do) I don’t know who I’m ignoring.
For those who don’t believe in such things, there’s a secular version, too: you have no idea who these starving strangers are. Are they ragged because they’re on drugs, or because they’ve got kids to feed? I try to err on the side of the kids.
There have been times when I’ve just walked past, or when a panhandler’s gotten in my face and I’ve pulled a few bills from my pocket with serious reluctance, times when I had other plans for those dollars. So when I have a dollar I don’t want to part with — be it on the street or at tax time — and someone’s standing there who needs it more than I do, it’s good for me to remember: am I on 3rd Avenue, or on the road to Emmaus?