Mercy for the Least of These
A. Trevor Sutton

I am a bug of a man,” proclaimed Neal. Earlier that week, a spider had crawled across his car windshield while he waited at a red light. He turned the windshield wipers on hoping to gently brush the spider off; instead, the spider was caught between the wiper and the glass. Arachnid guts were smeared everywhere. Neal finished the story by saying: “I felt really bad about killing that poor spider. What makes the whole thing worse is this: I am like that spider; I am a bug of a man waiting to be squashed by the world.”

Neal lived in his car. Through the winter months, he slept in a wool cap and boots through nights of finger-numbing cold; through the summer months, he would wake up sweating with all the windows open. Poorly lit rest stops, gas stations, and church parking lots were his nightly abode. His diesel domicile also served as a dining room for his daily meal of beans and rice.

He graduated from Dartmouth in the computer science department. Silicon Valley treated him well until the dot-com bubble left him very poor. He had been working random contract programming jobs. Having no immediate family to support him financially, he bounced around from state to state—Missouri, Nevada, Florida, Michigan—chasing after short-term contracts. The money was good; the work was sparse. He allocated every paycheck the same way: student loans and medical bills were the first priority, and then a portion went to saving for the time between contracts, and finally the leftover money was used for necessities like gas for the car and more beans and rice for dinner.

Neal sat in my office for over an hour telling me his story. He had not come to the church looking for money. Rather, he was on the verge of despair and needed to talk to someone. He was hungry and thirsty. He was without any prospect of another programing job. We prayed. We cried. We hurt.

None of that story I just told you was true. It was all a lie. Neal did not live in his car. The stories about the dot-com bubble and studying at Dartmouth were fictitious. The contract work and paying off student loans were mere yarns. I am not even certain that he ever killed the spider on his windshield.

After we had talked, prayed, and cried, he left. I told him that we would put together a collection of food and gift cards that he could pick up the next day. I called a local human services agency to see if there was anything else that we could gather up for him. It turns out that they already knew of Neal. Earlier that day, he had been to a few other churches with the same story: Ivy League educated programmer living in his car to pay off student loans and medical bills. Neal had already received a few hundred dollars in food and gifts before he came to meet with me. He had been doing this for a handful of months. I declined to give Neal any more assistance.

After that day, the words of Jesus have haunted me: “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:37–40).

Neal came to me as a hungry, thirsty, stranger. His hunger came with an extra serving of deceit. His thirst was garnished with greed. This stranger came into my midst with a fabricated story. His deceit and greed, to a degree, make me feel better about withholding assistance. His hunger and thirst, however, make me very uncomfortable about withholding assistance. I can find no satisfactory caveat for my decision in the words of Jesus. He simply gives us an invitation to feed, clothe, and show hospitality without mentioning the recipient’s honesty or integrity.

God extends his grace to liars, cheats, and users. We often come before God with a fabricated story telling of our own merit. We twist the details and shape a story about how we deserve divine mercy. We privilege our self-sacrifice, compassion, and dedication; we hide the self-deception, cheating, and greed. Despite our open deceit, God offers to welcome us into his midst. Regardless of our many twisted lies, he still offers to feed us with life-giving bread. Even though we are greedy for cheap grace, he still refreshes us with living water.

Neal showed me deceit. Neal showed me scheming and greed. He sought to capitalize on mercy by concocting a well-crafted story. More importantly, however, Neal showed me how I all too often stand before God. Neal made me realize that we are not just beggars before God. We are often deceitful beggars. And he still shows us mercy.


A. Trevor Sutton serves as pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Haslett, Michigan. He is a graduate student in Writing and Rhetoric at Michigan State University.

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