Recently my wife and I spent a week in a large RV Park/campground just south of San Diego, CA. Officially we went to watch our grandson play in a baseball tournament. Truthfully, summer in San Diego is The Promised Land for summer-weary Arizonans. Any excuse will do! It was our first trip in our new-to-us travel trailer. The “RV lifestyle” had a fairly steep learning curve at first. But the closest we came to a major crisis was a brand-new water hose that burst our second day out.
A fence separated the park from the river that ran along one side of the park. During the day a gate allowed campers access to the river bank. It was a popular place to run or walk, with or without a dog. Carson (by his own account the fiercest, bravest 17-lb. Shih Tzu on the planet) and I walked the bank daily. We met both two-legged and four-legged neighbors from the park. We also met folks for whom that river bank was their freeway. While we vacationers walked or jogged along, they pushed their shopping carts and rode their bicycles along the bank to get to work and do whatever it took to survive. Under the bridge we saw evidence that some of our neighbors slept there regularly.
That campground accommodated everything from tents to sophisticated RVs worth as much as our house. The total value of the rolling stock in that large park was well into the millions. A few campers were long-term park residents working far from home in construction or other jobs. But most of us (in July in San Diego) were “on vacation”. We had comfortable, spacious homes awaiting our return. Our camping “equipment” represented substantial “discretionary spending”. Yet literally within a stone’s throw were neighbors whose worldly possessions fit in the shopping cart they pushed everywhere. They biked to work out of necessity, not the pursuit of fitness or an environmentalist ethic. They slept under the bridge at night out of necessity, not because they enjoyed “camping”.
The stark contrast has stayed with me. What’s wrong with this picture is not merely that some of us have more than others. Life will always be like that. What bothers me is a nagging question: Did the folks in in the campground recognize their neighbors? If so, what did do about the gap between our abundance and their need? I said a silent prayer for the guy who went past on his bike and the woman (and children) pushing the shopping cart; smiled and waved when I saw the same person at the same time each day. Since I’m home, I’m feeling nudged to address this issue I can’t even name in a more substantial way than just blogging about it. But I’m convinced that lasting change will come when many of us recognize the other person as a person. He/she is a human being just as we are. Therefore we are family. We are neighbors with responsibility for each other. Once someone asked Jesus,, “Who is my neighbor?” His answer was, in effect, “Who isn/t?” (Read the story in Luke 10:25-37.)
Another time Jesus told a story about a rich man who saw a poor on his doorstep–but never recognized his brother:
“There was once a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped at his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21 MSG)
For weeks, months, perhaps years, that rich man stepped over Lazarus every time he left his house. Maybe he used another door so he didn’t have to pass that disgusting sight. Or maybe he just developed a blind spot. Lazarus was so desperately poor and disease-ridden, the rich man thought to himself, that he wasn’t merely at the bottom of God’s list. Lazarus had been deleted from God’s list! The rich man may well have prayed every time he stepped around Lazarus, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like this miserable wretch.”
Eventually both men died. Lazarus wound up in the lap of Abraham (heaven). The rich man found himself “in hell and torment”(16:23). When he complained, the response was, “You enjoyed your life and ignored that poor soul on your doorstep. You didn’t recognize your brother in need, your neighbor. Now the tables have turned. How does it feel being as anonymous and unrecognizable as Lazarus was to you?”
Imagine Jesus walking the river bank with us. After we’ve passed a few folks, he asks us, “Recognize anybody? That guy on the bike? That woman with the cart? Those folks sleeping under the bridge?” “No, Master,” we reply. “Never seen them before.” I hear Jesus sigh with disappointment. Then he takes a deep breath and retells another one of his stories(Matthew 25:31-46) . We obviously didn’t get it before. At the day of judgment folks are lined up and sorted into two groups. The difference between the two groups? How they treated the most vulnerable people within their reach: “…as you did it (or not) to one of the least of these…members of my family, you did it to me.” ( Matthew 25:40)
Look more deeply at the folks you meet on the street today. “Recognize anybody?” Your brother, your sister? You’ll soon discover a family resemblance with the most unlikely folks.If you dare, let Jesus’ story play in the background: “…as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me.”