Last week, I was one of many people who was heart-warmed by this viral photograph. It shows a young policeman kneeling in front of a homeless man in New York who is barefoot on a cold winter night. The policeman is giving him a pair of boots. The officer, Larry DePrimo, is a member of the counterterrorism unit, and he did not know a tourist was capturing his good deed on camera. He’d just been walking by, he saw a man who needed boots and socks, and he popped into a story and bought them with his own money. He even saved the receipt as a reminder to care for those in need. If that’s not 1gift4good, I don’t know what it is. The picture went viral. Millions of people saw it. The tourist who shot the picture, and young, humble Larry DePrimo went on Good Morning America and were charming. It was heartwarming. A good deed gone well.
‘But hold up there’, John the Baptist would say, scrutinizing the facts. As many of you know, John the Baptist is one of my favourite people in the Gospel – he is the truth-sayer, the tell-it-like-it-is guy, a curmudgeon who didn’t suffer fools. If you wanted gentle words, he was not the guy. If Jesus planted the seeds of hope and faith, John was the guy who churned up the soil, who demanded we take a good look at the mud. Upon hearing the wrapped-up, tidy as a bow story of Larry DePrimo and his gifts of boots, John the Baptist would have been the first to say: now hold up, there. Take another look at that picture.
And of course, this being the internet age, when no one is really private, a few journalists did. The homeless man’s name is Jeffrey Hillman. He is a 54-year-old army veteran. He has a history of arrests. And, to make things worse, he’s not even homeless. He has a little apartment paid for by the taxpayer and veterans benefits. But according to a government source, he also has a history of turning down the help that’s offered. What’s more a few days later, he was barefoot again. Turns out, he’d hidden the boots away for fear they would be stolen. “They are worth a lot of money,” he said. “I could lose my life.” So, after all the good-feeling, it turns out the recipient of our good gift is not just a criminal and a fraud, but he is also ungrateful. “What do I get?” he asked, about the attention his picture had garnered. “This went around the world and I want a piece of the pie.”
So there you have it: that neatly wrapped, tidy as a bow feel-good story. Ripped to shreds. Now there are several ways to react. And thanks again to the internet, we could track them all. Perhaps this commentator spoke for the ugly voice inside all of us when he said: “Thanks for ruining a good story. Manipulative deadbeat dirt-bag who preys on the sympathy of suckers.”
Now, tough-talked though he was, if John the Baptist was faced with that guy, I imagine it would be quite the friendly chat. If John was laying the path for Jesus, it was the idea that we should repent our foolishness, our weakness, our judgment and our pride. John’s down in the mud remember, and he’s rubbing our faces in it. That’s the two-step of the gospel: to fall over our own folly, and then to have the tools to react properly to the stumble.
So how do we react? Do we heap scorn on Jeffery Hillman for failing to meet our expectation? Do we pity ourselves and Officer DePrimo for being taken in? Do we decide to never get “suckered by sympathy” by giving another stranger a pair of metaphorical boots?
The answer, of course, is not simple. But what’s the underlying lesson here – the really instructive part? Well, there’s the obvious one: sometimes the people we want to help, don’t respond the way we’d like. How many times, have you attempted an apology that ended up in an argument? Or a favour that was unwanted? However Mr. Hillman ended up barefoot on the street, it’s a complicated one, a solider’s story, a story about poverty, and mental illness, about a lost life. It’s hard not to see anyone us getting to Mr. Hillman’s place and not feeling screwed over by the world, wanting a piece of the pie that life never served. If we only set out to help “nice” people as we define them, our good gifts don’t travel much farther than our doorsteps.
So then we get to the next messy part about trying to do good, about trying to follow the gospel. It doesn’t always work. Maybe it doesn’t even work most of the time. A lot of the time, we extend a hand, and get it slapped right back. Does that diminish Officer DePrimo’s good deed? What’s more should it stop him from helping the next homeless stranger? All we can do is keep extending the hand, over and over again. Except for this: There’s an old line from Albert Einstein: the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. And that’s true here. If we don’t learn, we fall into the same spot everytime. If we’re getting the apology or the favour wrong, we should perhaps listen to what the other person needs. Perhaps the lesson that we learn from Mr. Hillman is to no assume what others might need, to not project our lives upon them, to see them as they are.
Basically, that’s how John the Baptist saw his role – why he shows up in advent, as we wait for a stable in Bethlehem. He is showing us the way. And most importantly, the road to Bethlehem doesn’t lead to a tree with nicely wrapped presents under it. It leads to a smelly dirty manger, crowded with strangers and bright with potential. And standing there are all the Officer DePrimos and Jeffrey Hillmans, the givers and receivers, the students and the teachers. The path of God may be straight. But it’s not smooth. It’s not pretty. It’s life.