I’ve heard the story of the prodigal son since childhood. A young man leaves his home, takes his inheritance and wastes it on a frivolous lifestyle. Broken and penniless, he returns home expecting the worst. His greatest hope was for his father to take him back, not as a son, but as a slave or hired servant. To his shock, however, his father welcomes him and even runs down the road to meet him with open arms and prepares a feast to celebrate his son’s return.
Not too long ago, I had an encounter with a modern-day prodigal son—a smiling, chuckling homeless man whose worn face held two bright, searching eyes that were looking for more than food. They were looking for the love of a Father.
As my boyfriend and I finished up our meal at a restaurant downtown one night, our waitress asked if we wanted a to-go box. With only a thin, and now cold, slice of pizza left, we shook our heads no. As she began to clear our plates away, I felt somewhat guilty. Moved by a recent conversation in our Bible study about being a truly giving person, our group had decided to start reaching out to the homeless. I stopped her, and we packed up our small slice of pizza. I knew that we would encounter many homeless and hungry people on the walk to our car who would be more than happy to receive it as dinner tonight.
As we walked, I searched the streets to find some soul to bless. There was an older man nestled into a crevice in the wall of an old building. This was obviously going to be his home for the night. I imagine that the gap between the columns of the building offered some shield from the crisp night air. I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. Slowly, he raised his head as I thrust the to-go box towards him. I could see his dull, sad eyes begin to look upon me with curiosity as to what I wanted and relief that I wasn’t a cop.
“Would you like this for dinner?” I asked him.
A bright, wide smile stretched across his worn face underneath a thick, graying beard.
“Thank you,” he answered.
With a chuckle, he pointed to my boyfriend, “You don’t mind me eating this do you? Was it supposed to be your dinner?”
My boyfriend laughed and said, “No, go ahead.”
With that, we left the chuckling homeless man and proceeded to our car. I walked away grinning, knowing that tonight, that man had food to eat. Feeling satisfied with myself, I thought of this story and how I would relate it to everyone during our next Bible study. I could not wait to suggest to the others to give their leftovers to homeless people.
Later that night, however, I was listening to a song by the band Leeland. As the CD played, I heard the lines to the song “Tears of the Saints,” that said, There are many prodigal sons / On our city streets they roam / Looking for shelter. I stopped myself and played those lines again and again. That bright smile flashed in my mind.
I did not know his name.
So often, I think of my faith as a list of good deeds I must do. But what really matters to God is my heart. God saw that homeless man, not as a check off of my spiritual to-do list for the week, but as a son. All I really cared about was the action, about telling my Bible study group about what I had done. I didn’t even care to know his name so long as he helped me look like a better person. Good deeds are just that until I empower them with the love of Christ, then they are much more. With His love behind them, I am being Christ’s hands and feet. I am showing them the Father’s love.
As much as I try, I so often fail to see people through God’s eyes of compassion and grace. Instead of seeing the prodigal sons and daughters, I see someone who can help me check off one more good deed for the week. I pray that God helps me to see with His eyes, and to see His sons and daughters as my brothers and sisters.