April 8, 2009 - The Least of These

There was nothing unusual about the chance encounter in the parking lot, but something made me turn back. Panhandlers regularly ask for money in downtown Spokane, and my response is usually to smile and sadly shake my head. This man was hanging out next to the alley behind Rocky Rococo Pizza where the restaurant workers take their smoke breaks. He was smoking a cigarette. I walked by without even a smile as he said softly “Ma’am, could you spare some change? I haven’t eaten today.”

I walked towards the stairs, thinking about all I needed to get done that afternoon. I think it was guilt about not at least acknowledging him with a nod that turned me around. He had gotten almost all the way down the alley when I called out “Excuse me!” He hesitated, and I thought maybe I was off the hook, then he turned. “I won’t give you any money, but I’ll buy you a piece of pizza.” He started back and I turned to lead the way to the restaurant.

As we walked through the dining room, I could smell the nights on the street wafting from his clothes. He followed three steps behind, and said still more softly, “Just one of those pieces already boxed would be nice.”

I pointed to the display behind the counter, where the freshly cut slices rested on a warming rack, each stack neatly labeled with the type of pizza. “Which kind do you like best?” I asked.

He paused. “I can’t read,” he whispered.

My throat choked up. I cheerfully read off the choices, and he selected sausage and pepperoni, but I kept thinking about what he’d said moments before. “I can’t read.” People who should have been there for him as a child, to make sure he mastered such a basic skill, had let him down. I paid the $4.23 for his pizza and pop, and gestured to a table, bidding him to “enjoy.” He said thanks and walked quickly out the door, back to the world that was home for the homeless.

I didn’t do anything particularly magnanimous. My parking bill for the day was three times what I spent on his meal. What the whole incident reminded me of most of all is the story of the little boy and the old man walking along the seashore at low tide. There were dozens of starfish stranded on the beach, and the little boy kept stopping to pick one up and throw it back into the water. The old man told him there was no point, he couldn’t possibly throw all the starfish back into the ocean and it wouldn’t make any difference. The little boy stopped to pick up another starfish and replied, “But it will make a difference to this one.” Today I picked up one starfish, at one low tide. I wish I could have done more to break him out of his prison of illiteracy and homelessness.

This week, as we walk through the events leading to Easter Sunday and the glorious reminder of all that Jesus Christ has done for us, it is fitting for each of us to try and find our starfish. It is the least we can do as we await His triumphal return. Jesus' words are directed to us as individuals in Matthew 25: 31 to 46, saying:
“. . . Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of
the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”