Visit any urban area. Look around. The homeless are not hard to find. In Southern California, it’s common to see them stationed at freeway off-ramps, where thousands of cars pass every day. They hold crudely made cardboard signs asking for money, food, work. Some drivers lower their windows and hand them something: loose change, a dollar, maybe a bit more.
But most simply pretend not to see.
Making eye contact with them would acknowledge their humanity. And that would make it harder to simply drive past.
Imagine, then, the life of a first-century man born with some disease or deformity that prevented him from learning to walk. He lived with the shame of his broken body. He couldn’t work to support himself. All he could do was beg for money.
Even this humiliating occupation depended on the help of others who had to carry him to the place where he would sit all day, trying to catch the eye of some passerby who might dole out a coin or two.
They left him in a strategic location. Luke describes it as “the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate” (Acts 3:2, NRSV). The area surrounding the Jerusalem temple was divided into separate courts. The outermost was for Gentiles. From there one could pass through a gate into the Court of Women; another gate would then allow the men into the Court of Israel. Many scholars believe that the Beautiful Gate is to be identified with the so-called Nicanor Gate, which was covered with richly decorated Corinthian bronze. There is some disagreement, however, as to which gate this was — the one leading into the women’s court or the men’s.
No matter. The point is that the lame man was situated where throngs of people would pass by on their way to temple worship. This included the earliest Christians, including the apostles themselves.
Luke doesn’t tell us how well the man did. Almsgiving was one way to demonstrate piety, so some surely gave. But I can also easily imagine people filing by as if he were invisible. I’m reminded of the social phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility: when someone needs help, and there’s a crowd around, people are less likely to act. A man could be lying on the sidewalk moaning in pain, and until one person stops to help, others will just walk around him. The attitude seems to be, Well, nobody else is doing anything. Guess I don’t have to. Besides, I’m late for church.
So there the beggar would sit, I imagine, calling out for people’s charity as many ignored him and kept walking or gave him little more than a perfunctory glance. One afternoon, the apostles Peter and John came by, ready to go into the temple for the prayer service that accompanied the evening sacrifice. But then they saw the beggar being carried in, and he saw them:
When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (Acts 3:3-6)
In his ministry of compassion, Jesus saw the unseen members of society, touched the untouchable, and healed the helpless. Surely Peter and John, filled with the Spirit of Jesus, would have noticed the man and his plight. Indeed, Luke goes out of his way to say that Peter and John made deliberate and focused eye contact with the man, asking him to focus in return.
Most likely, the beggar was not used to having people look him in the eye, much less demand him to look back at them. This was different. The man sat up, alert and expectant. This is going to be good, he thought.
He had no idea.
More in Sunday’s post.