A while back, I had a disconcerting experience when my husband and I were enjoying dinner and a night out downtown.
As my husband and I held hands, walking back through the crowded downtown from our date, a man stepped out in front of us.His clothes were dirty. He was missing teeth. I’m not certain he was homeless, but people were swerving left and right to avoid him. He was carrying a bunch of roses in his hands, and as he came to a halt he held one out to me. “Miss,” he said. “Miss, please take one.”
I waved him off with a smile. “No, thank you.”
He darted around to block our path again. “Miss,” he begged, “please just take one. It’s free.”
I didn’t want to embarrass him or make a big deal out of nothing, so I took the flower and thanked him and we continued on. Lest you think this is a fuzzy feel-good story, I’ll tell you that before we walked five steps I heard his voice again behind us. “Hey! Hey! Those are seven dollars each!”
I turned around, bewildered. He was spitting curses. I saw a man pull his wife out of the way of his tirade. My husband rolled his eyes. “Come on,” he said. “It’s a scam.” But I was surprised; I wouldn’t have taken it if he hadn’t said it was free. I held the rose out uncertainly to the man in offering.
My gesture didn’t calm him down. “Pay for that or give it back! I ain’t giving away free flowers!”
Unnerved by his behavior and the gathering crowd, I took another step forward and shoved the flower back at him. He took it, still cursing. Another grown man in a suit snapped at him: “Get out of here. Nobody wants you around.” The man stumbled off and we heard someone else say that he had the cops called on him regularly; apparently, he ran this ruse often.
And it occurs to me, sitting here removed from the incident, that I should have not only kept the rose, but paid the man double for it – even with him cursing in my face. Could there be a more literal application of the word of Christ – love your neighbor as yourself, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ (Mark 12:31)? But I missed the chance.
A lot of us have an idea in mind of who our “neighbors” ought to be. They are kind, benign people who live near us; they are sometimes homeless, but always grateful and quiet; they are people willing to accept our kindness and generally deserving of it. All too often, my neighbors are people it does not inconvenience me to love.
But there are no limits on the dictate to love your neighbors. We are the ones who put the limits there. “Love your neighbors,” we say, “but only as long as they are doing their best to help themselves.” “Love your neighbors, but only if you feel safe around them and they don’t bother you.” “Love your neighbors, unless they disagree with you about something important.”
But there are no limits on love. God placed none. If He had, He would not have been able to love us.
Who is the neighbor you avoid? Is there an aggressive person you know whose tone and attitude makes you shrink back? Someone dismissive or belittling on whom your kindness will most likely be lost? Someone with whom you disagree vehemently about politics or religion? Someone who seems to be throwing their life away? Someone who just happens to be dull and irritating?
They are your neighbors, too. We are called likewise to act in love to them. And the way to avoid the situation I found myself in – where my instinct was to spare myself this man’s unhinged vitriol rather than to respond in a Christlike manner – is to train ourselves to do that far prior to the moment in which our actions will be put to the test.
I’m away on vacation for the next couple of weeks. Please feel free to comment on or respond to the posts; I’ll certainly get back to you when I return!