It was an image I had always been uncomfortable with—men unshaven and women with hair unkempt, all shuffling along in mismatched clothes, their eyes seemingly distracted by a world I couldn’t see. The same signs of homelessness I saw back home on the inner-city streets of Atlanta were all too familiar here in Athens, Greece. I stood off to one side, watching the long line of people make their way up the steps towards the tall granite face of the Second Greek Evangelical Church. Its double doors were propped wide open and tables were set up at the entrance, where a handful of smiling volunteers served a hot breakfast. Steam rose from each cup of coffee they poured, and the pastries looked golden in the early sunlight.
Our team had been sent here to meet with ministry partners and distribute In Touch Messengers and SD cards filled with discipleship content. Evangelicals are a religious minority in Greece, so all the congregations we visited that week were small in number—and yet I was moved by the way each church was devoted to the specific needs of its community. In the wake of the recent economic and refugee crises, some local churches began serving the continuous influx of families fleeing war-torn regions in the Middle East, while others, like this one, ministered to the growing number of Greek natives and immigrants who were unable to find work in the city.
Other volunteers stood outside, mingling with the gathering crowd. I watched the church’s pastor, Themis, greet a man with a long ponytail. As they leaned in for the customary embrace and kiss on the cheek, I marveled at the lack of space between them. They looked more like two old friends catching up after the service. I stood paces away, talking with another volunteer, Mihalis. Several men and women walked past us with breakfast in hand, and Mihalis greeted each one by name. I gave him a few more SD cards to distribute, and he took out his wallet to tuck them inside. Just as he was reaching to put his wallet away, a middle-aged woman with hat askew walked past. She spoke a few quick sentences to Mihalis in Greek and gestured to his wallet. He smiled and responded to her while stuffing his wallet back into his pocket.
“She was asking you for money?” I said, more as a statement than a question.
“No, actually,” he chuckled. “She was offering to buy me a new wallet because this one is falling apart.”
When I was a kid, my parents kept a stash of packaged food and fast-food coupons in the glove box of our minivan, to give to those in need. Whenever we spotted a figure holding a sign by the side of the road, our parents would pull up and roll down the window for one of us to hand out a snack or small meal. They wanted to cultivate a habit of generosity in me and my sisters, and it became a sort of game we played while riding in the car—though at the time, the full reality of what we were participating in eluded us.
But when I first started driving on my own, I failed to carry on this tradition—and that’s when I stopped trying to spot people in need. In fact, I began ignoring them altogether. I told myself it was because I didn’t want to give a false sense of hope. Yet truthfully, I simply wanted to pretend they weren’t there. I didn’t want to see the pained expression on their faces or read the signs in their hands. I didn’t want to let the uncomfortable pang of pity (or guilt?) fill my heart.
And so I’d pass them by, playing back a familiar reel: They don’t really look that poor. How do I know they’re not just faking it? These subconscious thoughts flowed through my mind as naturally as the air did in my lungs. It’s interesting, isn’t it? When we ignore a cry for help, we often feel the need to construct some justification for our inaction. Instead of asking questions, or avoiding judgment altogether, we instinctively assume the worst of people in need—just as I had assumed that Greek woman was begging for money simply because she saw a man’s wallet. And it’s this lack of curiosity that can, over time, harden our hearts against true empathy and compassion.
Just outside the gates of the Second Greek Evangelical Church, I noticed a marble placard, engraved with a Bible verse in bold capital letters: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29). I had seen the same verse elsewhere in Athens, hanging on the walls of another church-run center that fed dozens of refugee families week after week. But the permanence of this marble placard struck me: This wasn’t a temporary banner hung for some outreach event—it had been there since the church was built in the early 1900s. I wondered how many people in need had walked past the church and seen this invitation, one that was addressed specifically to them. And for all who entered its gates, the welcome was not only seen but also felt.
If we are being honest with ourselves, is this the message we want posted on our church buildings? Do we really want to attract those with great needs—physical, emotional, and spiritual? Would they even feel comfortable approaching us? If not, then why? Those of us who were raised to value the rewards of self-reliance might believe God expects us to serve the ones who are already doing their part in life and just need an extra leg up. When we search our hearts, perhaps we’ll find ourselves more inclined to spend time, energy, and resources on the ones whom we feel are most worthy.
And yet Christ not only called us to be His body, but to serve every single body in need as if it were His own. I wonder, if that mandate were not in the Bible and a pastor today were to preach its message, how would it be received? Perhaps the thought of treating a stranger in need as if he were the Son of God Himself would seem a bit irreverent. But while some people view this charge as less than literal, Jesus delivered it in a very concrete way:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matt. 25:34-40 NIV)
I remember a pastor who once preached from Mark’s account of the passage—specifically, “Anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name… will certainly not lose their reward” (Matt. 9:41 NIV). Centering his sermon on the phrase “in my name,” he explained this meant that when we perform a good work for unbelievers, we should always follow it by sharing the gospel. Otherwise, God will consider such righteous acts to be but “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). For years I wrestled with this perspective, and even now I find myself asking questions like, What if those in need don’t understand the reason behind my act of service? What if it doesn’t motivate them to change their worldly lifestyle or bring them closer to Christ? What good is giving a cup of water if I’m not saving their soul in the process?
But now I think this passage simply means that our kindness isn’t to be doled out discriminately to those whom we feel are most worthy. Rather, we should act with compassion because God Himself is worthy. And He has called us to let our good works shine before mankind to proclaim a glory that has absolutely nothing to do with us or them—but has everything to do with Him.