Over the years I’ve somehow made myself good at not looking. I’ve convinced myself it’s a survival skill for the rare times I visit major cities; when I was in Toronto back in 1999, I couldn’t handle seeing the homelessness problem, so within a couple of days I’d trained myself to walk faster, to look straight ahead, to not try and give pathetic scraps of change to the homeless woman standing outside a shopping centre, to the man lying on a sidewalk air vent.
These skills also served me well in San Francisco, when I found myself stepping over someone sleeping on the pavement. There’s a part of me that still hates myself for that, but if I’m being honest, it’s not a very big part, and I can still studiously avoid making eye contact with people begging in places like Derby or Dudley or Birmingham, places I live and work.
So Peter and John are going into the Temple in Jerusalem when a beggar asks them for money. They don’t have any, but instead heal his lameness; so far, so typical for the New Testament. But here’s the line that I always saw as a strange detail to mention:
“Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!”
It’s taken years for me to twig that this seems to be about eye contact.
I mean, the guy’s begging at the Temple gates, presumably because this was a high traffic area that gave him enough to live on. Scores of people must have walked past him every day, some of them throwing him a few coins here and there, and yet how many people actually looked at him? After all, it’s scary how easy it is not to make eye contact when you’re dropping a quid at someone’s feet.
Peter and John do make eye contact. There’s something going on here, something about compassion and interest and acknowledging the beggar’s humanity. In some ways the healing starts here.
Let’s not kid ourselves though, it’s about how these guys looked at each other. Because the alternative to not looking is sometimes to stare in horror and disgust, and in some ways that’s worse. Imagine, say, the looks given by passers-by when your autistic kid has a meltdown in the supermarket, or when your granddad does something inappropriate because his mind is slowly being clouded by Alzheimer’s, or when the friend who comes to church with you at Christmas has one too many tattoos and a flexible attitude to swearing, or when you read the latest tabloid campaign to characterise the disabled as ‘lazy’.
Look at those looks. They’re not pretty.
How we look at people can be a mark of how deep our faith has got into our bones, and frankly this terrifies me. Because I’m aware of how often I look in anger and judgement; I know how often I refuse to look at all.
Peter and John had the right idea, because, after all, they’d been hanging out with Jesus for years. They didn’t have any money, but they gave what they could. In the end, this turned out to be pretty spectacular, but they started with something simple – their interest, their attention, their compassion.
They looked, they saw what they needed to do and they did it.
Sometimes that’s all God asks us to do.
So why do we find it so hard?