There are many people who are invisible in our society and world. For some, disability or illness, physical or mental, means they are restricted from forays into the public spaces. Some simply cannot manage to get there or move around easily in shopping malls, busy main streets or other public spaces where they might be seen. Others avoid contact with other people out of anxiety, fear or an inability to engage or communicate. There are many reasons why some people remain invisible.
There are also people who are always before us but seem invisible to most people. The homeless guy wandering along a street may be seen but not really noticed. The lonely, insecure young person who appears a little different can go by relatively unnoticed in school, neglected and left alone. The poor are often invisible because their resources are limited and we may not even realise their poverty. They can’t engage in regular activities that others take for granted and therefore don’t participate.
There are invisible people everywhere and of course they are not seen. As I read the stories of Jesus I become aware of some people who are invisible. It is interesting that as I read of his interactions with various people they come to life much like a photograph taken on film being developed. It gradually appears and so do these invisible people in the stories of Jesus. There’s a woman of little consequence who was caught in adultery (the man doesn’t seem to have been caught???) and they want to stone her. Jesus sees her and opens to her and offers her life. There is a Samaritan woman by a well, a somewhat outcast woman of a different faith who was an enemy. Jesus saw her, stopped and crossed the taboos and spoke to her. Her gave her life. There were lepers and outcasts and poor and marginalised and little ones and neglected ones and disposable ones. Jesus seems to have seen the invisible and brought them into light by loving them. It is as if these people develop into 3D, real people through their encounters with him and the stories turn them into real, loved people.
There’s a story about a hyperactive, evangelical, sociologist preacher called Tony Campolo. He finds himself in all manner of interesting and strange situations. One was when he was walking down the main street of the city where he lives. Up ahead was a homeless man, a derelict who was grubby in tattered clothes and wih food caked into his long straggly beard. Tony noticed him but in a way that sees but doesn’t see. He saw his grubbiness and was really about to recalibrate his direction to veer away for the man when something happened. The man looked u from his coffee and their eyes met. That is the point of connection when the invisible begin to take form as real people. Tony was not able to shift his gaze and the homeless man locked onto him. He changed his trajectory to intercept Tony and there was nothing to be done but stop and engage the man. The truth is that Tony could have been very rude and ignored the man but he simply couldn’t avoid the reality that this invisible person was becoming a real live human before him. When they stopped the homeless guy reached out his hand with his coffee cup and offered Tony some of his coffee. The last thing Tony wanted was to drink from the already grubby cup with who-knows-what mixed into the coffee but he took a small sip and made a big deal of it. He thanked the man for his generosity and asked why he was giving his coffee away. ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘When God gives you something good I think you should share it. The coffee today is especially good!’
Tony felt he was being set up for a sting and so asked if there was anything he could do in return. Expecting to hear that the man could do with a few dollars, he was surprised to be asked for a hug (he really would have preferred the few dollars!). So he carefully and gently embraced the man, keeping him a little separated. As he was about to let go, the man grabbed him in a full bear hug and drew him close then placed his head on Tony’s shoulder. There he stood for what seemed an eternity. Tony Campolo grew increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed as people walked past and looked at this strange sight – a man in a suit being hugged by a grimy, filthy streetperson.
As his embarrassment grew into panic á voice suddenly reverberated through 2000 years and into his head. It said. ‘When I was hungry you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink. When I was sick or imprisoned you visited me. When I was naked you clothed me. When I was a homeless derelict on the main street of town you gave me a hug!’ These words, without the last line, come from Jesus and the story in Matthew 25:31-46. He is talking to crowds and the story makes the point that when we act out love towards the least of those around us, it is as if we are doing for Jesus or to God. These acts of simple love and care are what true faith is about. True faith in the way of Jesus is to make visible the invisible through love. It is to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, visit imprisoned and sick, clothe the naked… This is the way of God’s Reign. This is the way of Jesus, a way of life that gives life to the world through love, hope, grace, justice, inclusive community and peace.
Tony Campolo heard these words in his ears and recognised that this invisible, derelict man had given him a gift of connection. He suddenly realised that the man was a human being, loved by God and in his face he would see reflected the face of Christ. He was not hugging a filthy, derelict man but one in whom was the presence of God, one created in God’s image and one of the ‘least of these brothers and sisters of mine on earth.’
All around us are invisible people or people made invisible by our society’s leaders. The asylum seekers who are locked away are made invisible. The poor are squeezed into regions of the cities of the world where the desperate go and everyone else ignores – they are invisible. When cities host the Olympics, for example, they remove anyone who might embarrass the city before the world – they are made more invisible. The indigenous people of the world are pushed out of mainstream life, out of the way, and made invisible – perhaps then we won’t have to deal with their difficult questions and problems. The elderly are hidden away, as are those who live with mental illness, disabilities or serious health problems. The lonely, afraid, eccentric, genius and prophetic (who aren’t understood) and many others are pushed aside or made invisible until love shines across their path and radiates through them to bring them into life and hope, peace and joy.
When we open our eyes (or have them opened!) to see the invisible, the ‘least ones’, and reach out in love, they will find life – and so will we! We will find the Christ in our midst and these are always sacred and holy moments. The least may also be among the creatures of the earth and the earth itself, often despised and abused.
When you love the least of these, you love the Christ, God in our midst!