taking the words of Jesus seriously

I’m a little annoyed with Groupon. You get caught up in these daily deals, and you throw down before you think things through. So here I am, sitting around miles from my house, waiting four hours for my deeply discounted oil change. Having now had lots and lots of time to consider the matter, I’m pretty sure that a full-price oil change at a more convenient location would be worth the money.

The purchase made sense in theory: my car needed new oil, and this is a local business, mere miles from my house. It’s just not near anywhere I could hang out and kill time. So I wandered the streets for an hour and a half.

I breathed in exhaust fumes from local traffic, stepped over litter and potholes, kept one eye open for a place that would have me and wouldn’t kick me out. There weren’t many. I’ll be honest: I’m sort of waiting for someone to ask me to leave the premises even as I type.

If I want to get anywhere this afternoon, I’m either taking public transportation–which in my area is not very user-friendly–or I’m walking. And my area is not very walker-friendly; where there are sidewalks, they’re not terribly well kept, and in any case the cars have the right of way, no matter what the Secretary of State’s office might tell you.

My feet are tired. I’m sweaty and uncomfortable. I’m cranky. I’d like to be at home, but for the afternoon at least, I’m effectively homeless. I don’t like it.

I realize that I’m not really homeless; I’m merely inconvenienced. The homeless folks I’ve met wouldn’t experience the benign neglect that I’ve experienced hunkering down in this hotel lobby. I have the air of the homeful–a haircut, matching clothes, a defensible number and quality of accoutrements. I get deference where less presentable, more permanently homeless people would get the fish eye and an eventual call to security.

And while I was walking aimlessly, just looking for someplace to chill out, the homeless people I know are walking someplace as specific as it is arbitrary: they’re making their way from one shelter to another, from one service provider to another, from one job opportunity to another. The point of walking is specific, but the destination is based on the whim of whatever church has opted to open its doors overnight, whatever part of town a local government has zoned to allow social service providers to open up shop, wherever the jobs happen to be today. Meanwhile, drivers in car-based towns assume that walkers are walking aimlessly; pedestrians are nuisances to cars, regardless of how dangerous cars are to pedestrians.

I know, I know: I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m not homeless, I’m homeful. I just needed my oil changed and this daily deal presented itself, and I opted to inconvenience myself for an afternoon to save a few bucks. But however slight a taste of homelessness is my hour and a half of walking my town, my four hours of waiting for something to materialize, I’ve tasted enough to know that I don’t like it, and I wouldn’t wish it on people I don’t like–let alone people I like.

In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about how he hides himself in the naked and hungry and homeless and unjustly treated. We’re supposed to do unto them what we say we would do unto him. But seeing Jesus in someone sweaty and uncomfortable and cranky (and, frankly,  sometimes certifiable) isn’t as easy as it sounds. And more often than not we’re actually seeing ourselves as Jesus instead.

It’s not something we do on purpose; it just happens, because it’s easier to see ourselves as Jesus than to see someone yucky as Jesus. It’s easier for us, who try so hard to emulate our Messiah, to incarnate than to identify, to witness to someone than to witness Christ in someone.

So maybe, next time you see someone sweaty and uncomfortable and cranky and somewhat certifiable–someone yucky–instead of trying to see them as Jesus, go ahead and play Jesus yourself. Try to see them as me, you’re ole pal Dave, instead. I’m not a yucky person; I’m just having a difficult day. Try to cut me some slack, Jack.

I thank you in advance.

David A. Zimmerman is an author and editor. His booklet The Parable of the Unexpected Guest, a thought experiment for discipleship and evangelism, will be released by InterVarsity Press in September 2011.

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