The People Jesus Would Eat With
Posted by February 26, 2019on
If I’d known the kinds of troubled patients I’d be serving, I may not have taken the job. But after hearing their stories, I realized these were the kinds of people Jesus willingly chose to serve.
As a college student studying to be a dietitian, I certainly never envisioned myself working in a mental health unit. Especially not a residential rehabilitation treatment program, working with veterans who had hit rock bottom. Honestly, I always preferred working with people with cancer or the elderly—people who were sick through no fault of their own.
Even when I did take the job, I admit I had no idea what I was getting into.
And for that I am thankful.
If I had really grasped that my new patient load would be full of convicted felons, drug dealers, diagnosed psychopaths, men fresh out of 30 years in prison, abusive parents, homeless and shoeless sob stories who were wasting pension checks every month, men and women with all kinds of sexually transmitted infections, a murderer …
I probably wouldn’t have taken the job. I can’t say for sure. But the thought of sitting in my office, a few feet away from someone who had spent decades behind bars, talking about managing his diabetes, certainly wouldn’t have been my cup of tea. I knew I’d be teaching nutrition classes to a roomful of recovering addicts, but for some reason I wasn’t prepared for them to also be sex offenders or running from the law.
Sometimes when I would read their charts, I would weigh my options. Do I really need to meet with this person one-on-one? The things some of them had done often scared me. Before taking the job, I had never known anyone who had been in prison, and generally tried to steer clear of people with addictions.
Some of their stories were gut-wrenching. I was told graphic stories of military sexual trauma by both men and women, and I never really questioned why they became addicts. I heard stories of people struggling to cope with the things they had done and seen in the military, and the harsh ways that they treated themselves and their bodies as a result.
But then there were the people who had been doing drugs since they were teenagers. They came from relatively normal families, and they’d never even seen combat. Their time in the military was their longest time clean. What excuse did they have?
And what about the guy who had abused his kids when he was drunk, the single mother who had left her young autistic son alone to go meet her dealer, the guy who ended up needing jaw surgery after a bar fight, or the dozens who seemed to care very little about recovery and more about just having a temporary roof over their heads?
Was there any hope I could help? Weren’t they all just going to relapse in a few months anyway?
The Bible says that God sees things differently. That He spends time searching out His sheep that are lost, and He never just gives them up as unsalvageable. He expends Himself trying to win them back. His love for each and every person who is lost is as great as His love for all the people who aren’t lost (Matthew 18:10-14). The way His love functions is beyond our human comprehension.
His love does not always stop suffering for either the victim or the perpetrator (or for the many who are both victim and perpetrator)—but His love can bring peace (John 14:27).
In my year and a half working with this group of people, I have come to realize that if Jesus Christ were alive on earth today, these would be some of the people He would be serving and helping (Matthew 9:11-13). The outcasts, the downtrodden, the hopeless, the impoverished, the hungry. Whether or not they are impoverished and hungry through personal mistakes, He would still feed and help them.
Ready for change
Not every person who comes into our rehab program is ready to learn, but many are. Many have looked death and loss and poverty and utter loneliness in the eyes and decided they needed help.
Not every person who comes into our rehab program is ready to change, but many are. Many have learned from the harshest of experiences that the lives they have made for themselves are empty.
When I stand in their graduation celebrations each week and listen to them talk about their recovery, their newfound need for God, their hatred for the lives they used to live, their broken relationships they want to mend, I am often humbled by the depth of their desire to change. Their understanding of God is incomplete, and so their response to Him is incomplete, as well, but the way they seek to change their lives and “live for Him” often puts me to shame.
Lessons from my experience
Here are just a few of my takeaways from the job that has changed my heart.
- Do I put too much stock in my past, or the person I think I am, because of the blessed life I’ve lived thus far? Do I put too much stock in the pasts of others, and the people I assume they are, because of the mistakes they’ve made? A past is a past, no matter how bad and no matter how good (Ezekiel 18:21-24). We often judge others by their past mistakes, as I often did as I read through patients’ charts. But God says that He judges us by who we are and the choices we make now.
- Do I believe God when He says “for there is no difference” between any of us as sinful human beings (Romans 3:22-23)? Or am I still trying to hold on to some selfish notion that God called me because I was more righteous, less sinful, or somehow more “worthy” of Christ’s sacrifice? The sins of each person on earth no more necessitated the blood of Christ than mine, but also no less—and His blood is enough to cover them all.
- Do I need God as much as they need God? I love listening to the brave men and women who have hit rock bottom and discovered that any answers “within them” are inherently the wrong ones. They throw themselves at the feet of a Savior they hardly know, broken and miserable—but deeply desiring to be healed. They know they need a Savior, even though they may not fully come to know Him or experience true conversion at this time. Do I know that I am wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked (Revelation 3:17)? Do I know that I need my Savior?
I am still a long way from understanding the ways that God is working with the lost sheep of the world. I am a long way from comprehending the deep love that He has for each and every one of them, and the deep desire He has for the day when they will all come to know Him and choose His salvation over the passing pleasures of sin—or dullers of pain.
The compassion of Jesus
Think about the scenes many of the Gospels describe for us: Jesus, standing on a hillside, having just healed dozens of people, looked out into the faces of the multitudes of people still gathering to Him. He saw their creased and tired faces as they waited for Him, their last hope, to tell them, as He did the paralytic, “Be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you” (Matthew 9:2). Or, as He did to the woman with the flow of blood, “Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matthew 9:22). Yet their faith was small; they were hoping against hope.
Their lives had been so hard, and perhaps they had felt that no one could really help them now. But then they had heard of this Man, this healer and teacher, who spoke of spiritual healing and of running water to quench the thirst of the soul and of a better world to come.
They knew that they needed a healer, though only a few may have understood that their hearts needed healing too.
Jesus looked out at them, perhaps with tears in His eyes, and was “moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). He prayed for them. He taught them. He healed them. He died for them.
The book of Zechariah continues the theme: “Therefore the people wend their way like sheep; they are in trouble because there is no shepherd. … I will whistle for them and gather them, for I will redeem them; and they shall increase as they once increased” (Zechariah 10:2, 8).
God loves every one of His sheep, whether that sheep knows the Shepherd yet or not. Our future brothers and sisters may not look very much to us like sheep. They may look dirty and mangled, they may have strayed unimaginably far. But Jesus Christ identifies Himself with each and every one of them. He said if you show love to them, you have shown love to Him (Matthew 25:40). If you fail to show them kindness, turn up your nose at them, think yourself too good for them—you have denied and slighted Him (verse 45).
It’s a high calling and a difficult one, but it is exactly what we are called to do: serve others as Jesus served them. Love them as Jesus loved them.