I first heard about George* from our husband-and-wife youth directors. They had recently met this new homeless man who moved into our area. A few months later, I finally met George in March 2015. Since our first meeting, I’ve washed his clothes, shared a meal with him at our kitchen table, and spent hours with him in conversation. I’ve invited him to worship with us several times. Occasionally, he joins us.
George has hardly ever asked me for anything, which is rare for the homeless I work with. But he does come to our church building every day to refill his water buckets.
George knows he’s safe on our property. He’s safe to use our water without questions from us or the police. Our city’s police department learned long ago we do not view homeless men on our property as a “nuisance.”
If I’m working in our church gym and suddenly hear the outside water spigot turn on, I know George is outside filling up his buckets. He uses this water to drink, bathe, and do laundry. When his buckets are full, he walks back to his homeless campsite. For years, George has been content to live in homeless shelters like this. But George finally decided he’s ready for different life.
One of my pastoral colleagues, who serves at a different church, recently contacted me.
“Do you know George?”
Yes, I know him. Is he ok?
“Yes. He told me he wants help.”
Then this dear friend began looking for ways to help George. She contacted Catholic Charities’ Street Outreach Services. Their “SOS Team” would soon make a visit to George, and assess how they could best help him. In case they visited George’s tent when he wasn’t home, they would contact me. A few weeks passed.
One day a few weeks ago, two women arrived at Renovation Community‘s summer day camp and feeding program, Camp FUSE. It was the SOS Team. They tried locating his camp but couldn’t find it. They asked if I would lead them to George.
We crossed a road, knee-high weeds, railroad track, and more tall weeds. We finally walked up to George’s campsite, hidden on one side behind many overgrown bushes and a fence on the other side.
It strikes me that two pastors from Protestant churches and two women representing a Catholic organization all worked together to help this man. Clearly, God does not regard our human-made divisions.
I invite George and the two women to meet inside my office, instead of standing out in the heat. A few days after this meeting, George joins our church’ worship service. We all gathered around him and prayed God would free him from the addictions that have enslaved him many years.
In the Bible’s Book of Luke, Jesus tells a parable (a story created for teaching) about a man who plans a great banquet. He invites many people to his banquet. But the invitees all send back the (stupid) reasons they can’t attend.
Luke 14:21 says “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.'”
The man’s servants obey and return with the new guests but explain there is still more room at the banquet. So the master again sends out his servants. This time, the servants have to travel outside the city’s walls to find guests.
I specifically remembered Luke 14:23 as I came upon George’s camp hidden behind the bushes. The New International Version of Luke 14:23 reads “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.”
But it wasn’t the NIV translation I recalled. As I illegally trespassed on railroad property, traipsed through tall weeds, and passed overgrown bushes, I remembered that Bible verse as translated in the old King James Version:
“And the lord said to the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”
The overgrown bushes reminded me of the “hedges” in Luke 14:23. But a “hedge” in Jesus’ day wasn’t a bush that needed trimming. In Jesus’ day, it was usually a low wall (picture something like an old stone wall in rural England). And highways in Jesus’ day were well-traveled roads outside of ‘city limits.’ Highways were dangerous places in ancient times.
It wasn’t advisable to travel on a highway unless you were in a large caravan of travelers. In the ‘Good Samaritan’ story, the man beaten and left for dead was found on the side of a highway. Robberies (think of ‘highway robbery’) often occurred on highways.
Yet the Master in this story tells his servants to invite disabled and homeless people they would in the streets and alleys and those they would find along the “highways and hedges.”
Who on earth would hang out along dangerous highways and low walls?
Answer #1: Criminals and the homeless.
Criminals hung out along highways to rob people. Just like today, we tend to carry extra cash when we’re traveling long distances. So highway travelers were great people to rob. And, since most of the Roman soldiers were stationed in cities, deserted highways were great places to commit crimes, away from a soldier’s watchful eye.
The poor also hung out along highways. What better place to beg for money than a busy road filled with travelers with full money-bags? The more people who pass by, the greater the chance someone will give you money. It’s the same reason you often find panhandlers standing at the intersections of interstate off-ramps. But what about those hedges?
I don’t have much experience with homelessness, but I’ve learned a little in the last few years. The best place to sleep at night is somewhere with a roof over your head. If you can’t find that, the next best place to sleep is somewhere against a wall. Walls provide protection from wind and weather. They also provide protection from those who would do you harm. If you sleep with your back against a wall, you know there’s only one direction from which an attacker might come.
Answer #2- Gentiles (In the ancient Jewish mind, ‘people far from God.’)
To make sure this blog post doesn’t become as long as a book, I’ll keep this answer short. Jesus’ listeners almost certainly imagined “Gentiles” as he described these people. To many ancient Jews in Jesus’ day, Gentiles were “outside” God’s territorial walls, so to speak.
In Jesus’ parable, all the “normal” and “godly” people choose not to attend the Great Banquet. But the Master is determined. One way or another, people will fill his banquet hall. So he tells his servants to invite all the unwanted, disabled, poor, dirty, ungodly, and bad people to his banquet.
This is the God I serve. The Jesus who died on the cross loved the robber dying on the cross next to him. The Jesus who walked this earth touched the dirty homeless people of this world. The sinless Jesus of Nazareth invited himself to a dinner at sinful Zaccheus’s house. The “spotless Lamb of God” wasn’t afraid to gently touch the leper. The Jesus who invited me to his Great Banquet also sent me across the street, through the weeds, over the tracks, and behind the overgrown bushes to George’s camp, inviting him to rest in the Master’s House.
The Master’s Servants are called to this kind of work. This is what I try teaching the people I serve, both through the words I share and the ministries we plan. Renovation Community doesn’t officially launch as a church for several months, but we’re already working hard to set our new church’s identity. We want to be a church filled with the “outcasts” from that parable. We want to be a church full of ‘fixer-uppers’ – broken and run-down people transformed by God’s renovation work in our lives.
Jesus commands his servants to invite all the unwanted of this world to eat at God’s great Banquet Table. I’m learning that all the world’s “unwanted” are actually God’s “dearly beloved.”
They are out there. My Master calls me to invite them in.
*Not his real name.