I was sitting in my office one Sunday afternoon working on my lesson for the evening service when a man about my age walked in and asked to talk with me. I’d never laid eyes on the man prior to that moment; and, in a small town of less than 500 people, I would have known him if he was local. It didn’t take much for me to size him up and recognize that he was there to ask for money, and that’s exactly what he proceeded to do.
Because the railroad was less than two blocks away and every train was required to stop in our little town for crew changes, drifters riding the rails from one place to the next would often make their way to the church building and ask for money. Seldom did they simply ask. Usually they had a tale of woe that was complicated and calculated to draw as much sympathy as possible.
This man was a seasoned veteran, and frankly I was short on time. I told him if he really wanted some help he would have to wait until the evening service was over and would have to speak with our elders. I sent him to a local restaurant and made arrangements to comp his meal and told him to be back at 6:00 for evening worship. I didn’t really expect him to come back, but to be safe I called one of my elders and told him what I had done. My elder said he would be prepared if the man returned. He did.
Just before we began our evening service, the man returned and took a seat in the auditorium. After we were dismissed, the elders invited the man and me to their conference room. After an opening prayer, they asked the man what his need was and the stories began. The evening story was slightly different and more elaborate than the one I had heard that afternoon. As he talked, I was watching the elder I had spoken with earlier and was trying to read his body language. I was hoping that none of them were falling for the tale of misery that was being spun, but I was also a bit put off by the fact that the elder I had spoken with couldn’t seem to quit fidgeting with his copy of the newspaper that was published in a town 40 miles away.
Finally, the series of tragedies had been chronicled and the man fell silent. My elder took a breath and then quietly asked the man if it would be any help if he could get a job. Caught off guard, the man said he did need a job but there just weren’t any jobs to be had. At that point, my elder unfolded and spread out his newspaper on the table that we were all sitting around. He turned to the want ads, and all of us could see that he had circled a dozen or more notices of individuals and businesses advertising positions that needed to be filled. All involved manual labor of some kind. None were high-paying jobs, but all of them paid by the week. Dishwashers, delivery drivers, farmhands, stocking clerks, and other positions were read to the man one by one. And, one by one, he turned them all down. They were too far away, he didn’t have a driver’s license, he had a debilitating old work injury, he didn’t care for that kind of work, etc. The excuses were prompt and ready. None of the positions were suitable. The man got up and left, and in a few minutes I heard a train horn beginning to sound. I never saw him again.
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The man had been ill, bedridden for 38 years. He was staying in a place surrounded by others who were also suffering from various diseases and handicaps. Jesus asked him a very simple question, “Do you wish to get well?” (Jn. 5:6). Rather than answering in the affirmative, the man gave an excuse for why he was still bedridden (v. 7). To which, Jesus replied, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” And that is exactly what the man did (vv. 8-9).
We have the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life in the gospel we proclaim. Some don’t really want it, preferring to live off the sympathy of others. Some really do and only need to be taught. We don’t have to make the judgments as to who is worthy to hear it. We only have to ask a simple question: “Do you want to hear it?” The power of the gospel and the sincerity of the person we ask will lead to one decision or the other. We just have to ask.
Keep studying. DC Brown ©2017