I have been a fan of Don McLean for a very long time. The composer and performer of “American Pie” and “Vincent”, from an era that is long gone, also wrote a great many songs that did not make it nearly so big. Folky, inward looking, even depressive, his songs reflect an inner pain with the world that rings true with me and many others, if we can gauge by his popularity over the years. Lately, I have been listening to one of his old songs entitled “Homeless Brother”. It’s about a drunken hobo causing a ruckus in a cemetery with no one but himself. The sight of it causes McLean to wonder how it was that the man got to be in such a position.
My on line dictionary says that the derivation of the term “hobo” is uncertain, but in the title of the song McLean hints at a meaning that I want to be true – Hobo – homeless brother. (See here for a more scholarly explanation). Always on the move, always looking for a handout, always wanting another drink. We no longer have hobos; people who wander around the country looking for work or handouts, living along the railroad tracks with others like themselves. They became famous during the Great Depression, lasted for some time after that, (I can remember them in my childhood, which wasn’t that long ago), but as an identifiable group they are gone, as is the word out of our culture’s vocabulary.
But we still have lots of homeless people, lots of alcoholics, lots of empty hands being held out. Some of them are in their state because of mental issues that prevent them from interacting very well with the rest of society. It seems to me that we can hardly look at our culture and its values with an accurate understanding of it and lay all the blame on those who want to escape from it and who cannot operate very well inside of it. But we do. So these people live on the culture’s edges, demonstrating survival skills that would shame survivalists of all kinds. Enough to make one wonder who has the mental issues.
Many younger homeless people are on the streets because the streets are better than what they had at home – abuse, quite often sexual, neglect, violence. Many became victims of the booze or worse, and what has destroyed countless multitudes over the years continues along unabated in the lives of the homeless as it tallies up more victims. Some of these people simply want out of the rat race.
We can get romantic notions about the homeless and that would be a huge mistake. As I finished off my Social Work degree in 1977 I was sure that all the needy needed was to know that a hero like me was willing to do something for them and they would rise up and accept everything that was offered them and kiss their troubles good-bye while singing my praises as they bought their new four bedroom home in the burbs. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Needy people, like affluent people, can be uncooperative, ungrateful, untruthful, unkind, rude, devious, selfish, living with a sense of entitlement. Sometimes it is their circumstances that have helped develop some of these traits. They have been turned down and abused in various ways so much that they just assume that is the way everyone is. Like us, they know how to find ways to justify their sins and blame others for their difficulties. Like us, they look at genuine care and concern with a jaundiced eye, thinking that the one showing genuine human compassion must be up to no-good. You know, just like we assume about them when they hit us up for help.
I admire most of the homeless and needy who I get to interact with, even when I argue with them and refuse their requests. They live on hope. They live in hope. They never give up believing that around the next corner things are going to improve, even though the last forty corners have only brought them the same old things. I am sure it would be fascinating to sit down and talk with people about their lives. We would be amazed at how similar they are to us, even though we are doing much better than they are. The great temptation for us, of course, is to come to believe that they are what they are and we are what we are because we are better, more righteous, more ingenious, more protestant-work-ethicky, than they are. Perhaps, sometimes, maybe. Perhaps it is nothing other than mercy lavished on us for no other reason than God just chose to lavish it. Christians need to understand that the people they interact with every day are more a mirror of themselves than they are prepared to admit.
The whole matter of Christianity is never far from me when I interact with people in their hardships. The top most question in my head is “They go through the horror of life that is theirs to go through and then stand before the judge of all the earth with nothing but a guilty charge to hear?” I am not a universalist – but I understand how it is that some people get to that unbiblical position.
Jesus cared for the needs of those who came to Him for help. That is why He helped them. It is also why He turned them away without help some of the time. He wanted them to receive better than what they were asking. His compassion is most clearly demonstrated to me in this text. It is about the spiritual, mental, material, emotional, and other needs that He saw in the crowds:
Matthew 9:35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The second thought that occupies my mind when I encounter the needy is just how many of them are truly born again. I know and pastor many needy people. Poor people, mentally ill people, abused people, people hurting in all kinds of ways and who are not cheating the system even though there are great temptations to do so. People who come to church and sing with a genuine smile on their faces and a real joy in their hearts. People who know that those who help them and listen to them, are tools in the hands of the God who loves them and who they know has promised not to leave them or forsake them.
This present world is full of pain and suffering of all kinds. Untold millions suffer more than the poor of our own culture. But these are the ones for whom God has given me a broken heart. By His grace, I and the church I am a part of, have been able to pass on some of the love of God to the needy all around us. It is not much. But it is not nothing.
I haven’t a clue about Don McLean’s beliefs regarding Jesus Christ and the Gospel. But this song has Christian compassion in its pores. So I just share it with you and hope you find it helpful in some small way even if it is only a matter of three minutes of entertainment. Glad to provide that for you this morning.