This may or may not come as news to you, but between the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of St Paul, it turns out that the Bible is right. Paul is often at pains to point out that salvation – relationship with God through Jesus – is not something we earn, but something we’re given precisely because we don’t deserve it and we’ve admitted as such to God.
On the face of it this is deeply offensive to everybody, apart from really evil people like mass murderers and the people who stick chewing gum on the underside of desks. We’re not worth it, but God loves us anyway and makes us worth it by what He does in Jesus. It’s mind-bogglingly offensive to my sense of my own goodness and worthiness. If we lose the offence of this, then we’ve missed something crucial about the gospel.
There’s a great worship song that manages to unpack some of this. Ignore the tune if you’re not into folk music – it can be translated into something very different on the piano – what this does really well is talk about the offensive welcome of God. It’s the sort of worship song that’s really comforting until you start to pay attention to all the words: God welcomes anyone who’ll come. That includes me, and people I may like – debaters who’ll disagree with me and still allow me my own view and materialists with season tickets to the football who just happen to lend them to the vicar; and people I may not like. The most potentially inflammatory of these in the song are people of ‘every orientation’ or perhaps ‘abusers’. We’re all comfortable with welcoming the abused; churches do that, right? We have prayer ministry and inner healing courses for that. Every church like to welcome the abused. But the perpetrators? If I haven’t stopped to consider that even ‘they’ (whoever my particular ‘they’ might be) will be welcomed by God and redefined by Him if not by me, then I haven’t got a big enough picture of God or His gospel. God is less concerned about His reputation than I am.
Which leads me to giving money to people who beg. All of us who don’t live outside have probably wrestled with this in some form. If someone who is probably homeless is asking for money, what do I do? Should I give indiscriminately? What if ‘they’ spend it on drugs or alcohol or something else ‘they’ are addicted to? How do I know ‘they’ won’t squander it?
Notice how quickly the nameless ‘they’ creep into our discussions. When I’ve led groups in consideration of this question, I’ve often tried to change the terms of the discussion. Let’s imagine a person with a name. Give him or her a history, a path to this point in time. Give her a passion. Give him a sports team to love. Give him a life’s path from this point on. Usually the life’s path leads to a premature death of some kind. What follows is often an uncomfortable silence, and a re-imagining of the conversations around money. For some it no longer matters what the person may do with money handed over or help given; what matters, suddenly, is how that person has been treated in the interaction.
There are many people in our area who live outside. I don’t know many of them. One or two I know well. Ricardo is one of those.
He’s a bright, witty man with a winning smile. He lives on the streets. After a year or so of us getting to know each other, he asked if he could sit down with me and my wife and just tell us his story because ‘I’ve never told anyone before’. So he came round one night for a bowl of pasta and talked for hours about the story of his life. He still lives on the streets, but now he assists my wife on her photography jobs and sometimes he drives our car. Apparently this is shocking to some; I’m not trying to make us out to be something special. Really I’m not – it’s only shocking to me if he’s one of ‘them’. He’s not. He’s my friend Ricardo. He’s going to come round and watch a movie soon, because that’s what I do with friends who have names.
Does he deserve it? No. Might he go ‘off the rails’ at some point and take advantage of us? Possibly. Am I just encouraging him to stay on the streets? Perhaps.
Have I ever spent money on something I shouldn’t have? Have I ever done things I shouldn’t have or taken bad decisions? Have I ever taken advantage of the kindness and goodness of other? Next question, please.
Did I deserve someone whose name I didn’t know to die for me? I suppose I should probably stop hedging and start answering. No, I didn’t. Might I go ‘off the rails’ at some point and take advantage of that? Yes I do, often. But you’re in no place to judge; you’ve departed the rails on occasion yourself. Does that grace just encourage me to sin all the more? Sometimes, yes. If you’re honest, you do too.
Does any of that change God’s welcome of you?