The beggar, lame since birth, needs money. That’s why he’s chosen to sit outside the Temple at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It’s the time of day for faithful Jews to go give alms and pray, which means that it’s a time when people with money to give will be walking by as he’s asking for money to be given.
This reminds me of downtown St. Petersburg. I grew up in that Florida town, and as teenagers we loved to wander the streets lined with shops and music venues and restaurants. Although we didn’t have much more than our allowance, the other pedestrians were likely to have a little money on them: the business men and women in their suits, or the tourists in their flip flips and shorts. Wandering among us were those with almost nothing, asking for help from those who might have some help to spare.
So in a similar way this beggar sits outside the Temple and waits… waits for someone who will have the compassion and the ability to give.
Then, along come Peter and John.
But do they give? No.
At first glance this might seem like a justification for those of us who dislike handouts of this sort. “See – not even Peter and John would give money to someone on the street!” But the reason they withhold is simply because they have nothing to extend. “I have no silver or gold,” Peter tells the man (3:6). And it’s the truth; Acts has already told us that the early Christians sold their possessions and equally distributed the proceeds among them, sharing everything in common (2:44). Beyond that, we know that Jesus sent his disciples out without any gold or silver (Matthew 10:9) – we might assume they continue to go as Jesus had originally sent them.
In short, this is no white lie from Peter and John; they truly have nothing to give.
I can easily relate to the disciples on this point, but not because I’ve given all my money away; I’m just bad to walk around with nothing but pennies in my purse. Today I do this because I use my card most of the time; as a teenager I did this because I just didn’t have any money. Regardless, the end result is when someone asks me for money, most of the time I respond like Peter and John: “I don’t have a dollar on me.” Then I walk away with a heavy heart, because for better or for worse I always feel like I ought to give.
But that’s not how this Bible story ends.
Peter and John do not walk away. They do something else that has never once occurred to me to do when someone asks me for money: heal the man.
“I have no silver and gold,” Peter says, “but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (3:6). The man not only walks – he leaps! He leaps right into the Temple, praising God!
Sometimes, when I have no money, I’ll find a granola bar in my purse to give away instead. This healing really makes my granola bar look pitiful.
But on one level, that’s the wrong line of thinking. This story isn’t about me. It’s not about you. It looks like it’s about Peter and John – they make the lame walk, after all – but it’s not even about them.
This story is about Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the one who empowers Peter and John to heal this man. Our response is not to imitate this amazing event, but to be in awe of this amazing event. Look at what Christ could accomplish through Peter and John! Jesus used Peter, the Rock, and John, the Beloved Disciple, to give this beggar something we could never give.
Well, sort of. On one level.
There’s another level that has to do with what happened after the healing. Because of what Christ did through Peter and John, this once-lame man can now walk – correction, leap – into the Temple to pray… just like a normal, obedient Jew.
The lame in first-century Palestine were not full members of society. In Leviticus 21:18, those who are lame are on a list of those who are not allowed to come forward and offer the bread sacrifice. There’s no social welfare program, no handicapped-accessibility, nothing. A man who was lame from birth would have been dependent on others from birth, and an outsider from birth. He was incomplete, less than whole.
Lest we judge this beggar’s contemporaries too harshly, let’s remember that we’re not so different today. Yes, we do have assistance programs and rules in place that would help someone like this man, who couldn’t walk. But viewing those asking for help as somehow less-than – that line of thinking is still alive today. We blame them: “Why can’t he get a job?” We make assumptions: “She’ll just use the money for alcohol.” We separate ourselves from them: “That would never be me.” And maybe worst of all: We try not to see them.
I learned just last week that there are thirty people living along the river in Murphy, the next town over. Thirty people! In an area this big, you’d think I would have noticed them, seen them somehow. How have I missed that?
It’s possible that I missed them because I’m not looking for them, not seeing those thirty people as full participants of our community.
A report from the National Coalition for the Homeless quotes one man as saying that he felt “disconnected from the world… people walk by you and not make eye contact with you.” That brings to mind countless scenes in downtown St. Pete. where I saw someone approaching but didn’t even look their way because I could not or would not give them any money.
I wonder: Is it mere coincidence that this Bible story begins with a moment of intentional eye contact between Peter, John, and this lame man? A moment when Peter looks at him and the man looks back?
After they look at him, they heal him. And after they heal him, something even more amazing happens: This man becomes a full part of Jewish society for the first time in his life. He can now go to the Temple. He can pray in God’s house. He can earn his own keep. He can get where he needs to go without having people carry him.
He is fully alive, fully a part of Israel. He always was, in God’s eyes – but now everyone else can see it, too.
When we pass someone who needs help, Christ might not use us to heal them. Our call is probably not to speak a word and alleviate their physical or emotional or addictive issues. We are not Peter or John in that way.
But we are Peter and John in that, every time we encounter someone, we can treat them as a full and complete human being, a child of God of equal worth as you or me. We can look him in the eyes, just like Peter and John did. We can shake a hand. We can ask how she’s doing and really listen for the answer.
We can invite them to dinner on Thursday night.
Here in Andrews we have a “Welcome Table” every Thursday night at 5pm. Our church – Andrews United Methodist – hosts the meal in our Family Life Center, and provides the core volunteers who set up and clean up. Every week a different church or organization provides a good meal. And every week, about a hundred people come and sit down at tables together.
The beautiful thing about this supper is that it’s for everyone. Some come and eat because they’re hungry. Some come and eat because they’re lonely. Some come and eat so they can help serve. You might take a guess at who’s in which category, but there aren’t any clear lines. No one pays; everyone eats.
I love eating at the Welcome Table each week with my family. My two children make a big mess and run and play with other kids. My husband and I talk over our days with the other adults brave enough to sit at our table. We’re all there and fully human together.
Sharing a meal together has a way of making us equals. Jesus knew that; that’s why Jesus did it, he ate with “sinners and tax collectors.” In the case of Matthew, it even made him a disciple (Matthew 9:9-13).
Maybe you can come to the Welcome Table; maybe you can’t. Maybe God is calling you to share a meal with someone; maybe God’s calling you to something different. The point I’m trying to make is bigger than that.
Your assignment as a follower of Christ doesn’t have to be to eat supper with someone in need. Your assignment DOES have to be to treat everyone as a fully-human child of God.
Homeowners or homeless.
Those with careers and those who can’t find a job.
Those with deep pockets and those whose pockets seems to have holes in them.
All of them – all of us – are children of God, equally important, equally loved.
As followers of Christ, we must treat each other as such:
To look at each other, see what God sees, and love each other as God loves us.