Going the rounds on Twitter in November was the story of the 90-year-old man in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, charged by the police for feeding homeless people on the beach. Charged along with him were two ministers.
According to local news Channel 10 in Fort Lauderdale, each man faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. They were the first offenders charged with violating a new ordinance that prohibits public food sharing in parks.
Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old, runs a program for the homeless and has been advocating for the homeless for 20 years.
In one classic tweet commenting on the charges, Jesuit Father James Martin asked, “Why not lock up Jesus too? And the good Samaritan?”
I suppose it’s the typical case of a city trying to keep the poor, the vagrant, the homeless, those judged unsightly, away from the part of town where the hoity-toity and the tourists congregate. It’s sort of like those cities that win the Olympic bids and then try to hustle all the street people and the prostitutes out of town when the big show starts.
And it reminded me of the story about the statue created by artist Timothy Schmalz. You probably saw the articles last spring. Schmalz created a life size figure of Jesus, but his Jesus was shrouded in a blanket and lying down on a bench. The only way you could identify the homeless Jesus was by the visible wounds which marked his shoeless feet.
When the statue was unveiled in front of an Episcopal church in North Carolina, a church that’s located in an upscale neighborhood, a passing woman called the police to report a vagrant on the church premises.
That provoked a few jokes. It wasn’t the first time Jesus had been reported to the authorities, people cracked. And of course, some of the humor was directed against the woman, who probably thought she was doing the church a favor but was actually calling the cops on Christ.
Schmalz, who creates much art for Catholic churches, said on his website that the statue was “meant to challenge people.”
He added: “An artist needs an epic subject to create epic art. I realize I am between two things that are much more durable than I am: Christianity and bronze metal.”
The statue of the vagrant Jesus ultimately received a lot of publicity. When a smaller version was presented to Pope Francis, he — no surprise here — prayed over it and blessed it.
It’s a hard Gospel truth, this idea of Christ being with the most marginalized. The truly poor in our midst often don’t smell very good, they often make maddeningly poor choices, and they are sometimes caught up in almost irreversible webs of addiction and despair.
Sometimes, all we can do is love them, not fix them, and that can be tough.
I’ve heard Bishop Robert Morneau, an author and the auxiliary bishop emeritus of Green Bay, speak at several stewardship conferences, and he invariably mentions that we should know the main thing — and the main thing is to always keep the main thing the main thing.
I think that simple little directive describes Pope Francis. He has his eye on the main thing — the Gospel of Jesus, the love that challenges us daily to live up to a standard of mercy that can be really difficult.
We can argue about a lot of stuff in our church, some important, some frivolous, but in the end the only thing we should judge is how well we’ve lived up to the main thing.
The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.