Being asked for spare change by a person on the street corner can often make for an awkward situation. Do we look them in the eyes or do we gaze off into the distance? Do we read their sign for help or do we choose to ignore it? Do we extend them some cash or do we withhold it? These and more questions may race through our heads during those 30 seconds we're stopped at the red light.
As I look back on my past experiences with panhandlers, I confess that my giving has been erratic. If I'm in a good mood or the person's signage is humorous or heartbreaking, I will open the window and lovingly hand the person a dollar or two. On the other hand, if I'm having a less than stellar day or I've lost any resemblance of compassion, I'll divert my eyes from the person; I won't read their plea for assistance; I won't give them a nickel or dime. Being asked for spare change is often cumbersome.
You may recall that once promising story about a local news reporter in Columbus, Ohio, who met a panhandler named Ted Williams. Williams became a media sensation overnight: "the man with the golden voice." His video footage went viral on YouTube with over 18,000,000 hits. He eventually was offered a job with the Cleveland Cavalier basketball team as an announcer and was considered for other radio broadcasting positions. But, sadly, his former ways got the better of him and he lost his way.
As we travel through life, we meet all types of people who need our help. But what if what they're asking for is not all that they need? In Acts 3:1-10, Peter and John are making their way to the temple for afternoon prayer when they are stopped by a panhandler looking for a handout. What can we learn from this story as we think about the people that God sends our way?
We want to satisfy physical needs.
In verse 1, Peter and John were walking to the temple for daily prayer which was their usual custom. Luke shares that they were greeted by a man who was crippled from birth. Every day the people in this man's close network carried him to the temple gate so he could beg for money. Imagine being this crippled man who had never walked on his own two legs. Every single day he relied on others—24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Years ago, my brothers and I wanted to bring our aging grandmother from her nursing home to our parents' home for the annual Kim family Thanksgiving dinner. The difficulty was that grandma could no longer walk—her legs were limp and lifeless. We would need to carry our grandmother and carefully place her in the backseat of the car. Then once we arrived at home, we would have to carry her into the house and sit her down on the living room couch. Grandma looked so weak and frail. She was skin and bones, so we thought this would be an easy task. But when we lifted her, she was heavier than she appeared. She was heavy not because she was overweight, but because the lower part of her body was completely inactive. She couldn't control her legs. They were dead weight, like dense tree branches. We loved our grandmother dearly and wanted her to be present at Thanksgiving supper. We were able to make this effort once a year so she could spend some time with the entire family.
The friends or family of this person with disabilities loved him so much that they were willing to wake up every morning and transport him on their backs to the temple. Imagine for a moment being a friend or family member of someone with special needs. Some of you probably already are. When I was in college, I volunteered for two years at Laura Baker School, an educational facility that specialized in helping students with special needs and developmental disabilities. Each week I witnessed the toils of individuals with disabilities struggling to do daily activities we take for granted. Some of them couldn't put on their own shoes or even lift forks to their mouths. This was their lot in life. And this was also the lot of the man in Acts 3.
Notice the physical descriptions that Luke includes in his narrative. This man was crippled from the moment he was born. His physical body needed to be carried every day to the temple gate, called Beautiful—another physical description. Bible scholars are uncertain where this so-called "beautiful gate" was located on the temple grounds, but we do know that this gate led into the temple, which meant heavy foot traffic and potential charitable givers.
Then, in verse 3, the man sees Peter and John about to enter the temple so he asks them for money. When we go through difficult situations, often the only thing that we can think about is meeting our immediate physical needs. Our minds gravitate toward how we can satisfy our physical bodies: our stomachs, our looks, or something else. Obviously, the man in Acts 3 struggled to find work. His body couldn't perform manual labor because of his disability. He was overlooked because of his physical appearance. So the only thing he could think to do was ask those passing by for change.
There's nothing wrong with the man's request. In fact, that's what any person in his situation would do. We all would stretch out our hands and ask for some change. But the truth is, we need a different kind of change. In his book, Just Generosity, ethics professor Ron Sider asks this profound question: "How would I feel if I were a poor person living in the richest nation on earth and knew my comfortable neighbors simply did not care enough to offer me a real opportunity?"
Ron Sider is asking Christians to think outside of the box. Yes, we are commanded by God to care for the poor and meet their physical needs. We remember Jesus' powerful parable about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. The people that Jesus considered the sheep truly cared for those in need by feeding them, by relieving their thirst, by providing shelter, by giving them clothes to wear, by tending to the ill, and by visiting prisoners. Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Jesus commands the people of God, you and me, to care for the least of these as if we were caring for Jesus himself.
But, as we continue reading in Acts 3, there's greater depth to the story than simply emptying the change from one's pockets. In fact, Peter and John are going to offer this man change that will alter his life forever. We want to merely satisfy our physical needs and leave it at that, but true satisfaction is found in Jesus.
Satisfaction is found in Jesus.
Verse 4 says, "Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, 'Look at us!'" The disabled man was distracted and did not give Peter and John his full attention. So Peter commands the man to look at him. It's like when I'm trying to get the attention of my sons Ryan and Evan, especially when they're watching TV. They can probably sense that my eyes are fixed on them and I want their attention. But they're so engrossed in what they're watching, what daddy wants right now is not all that important. So I have to raise my voice a little and say, "Look at me!"
Verse 5 says, "So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them." You can picture this man people watching and studying the crowd to figure out which temple worshiper might stop and give him some money. After Peter gets his attention, the man reaches out his hand hoping that Peter and John might pull out some coins—preferably the shiny kind.
Verse 6 continues, "Then Peter said, 'Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you.'" The man scratches his head wondering what Peter might provide if it isn't a monetary donation. Then Peter through the power of the Holy Spirit exclaims, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." Then, "taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man's feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk."
What must be going through the man's mind at this moment? Here is a person who from birth has never been able to take a step. His mother and father never had the joy of recording his first steps when he was an infant. But years later, Peter takes his right hand and pulls him up to his feet. He can feel his feet and ankles get stronger by the second. He jumps to his feet and begins to walk. Little did he know that his miraculous story of healing would be recorded in the Bible.
The man thought he needed something monetary to meet his physical needs, but Peter and John granted him a special gift that changed his life forever. As we study the Bible's account of miraculous healings, we know that when the healer speaks those precious words, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth," what the recipient receives is not only physical, but spiritual restoration and healing. And that's what this man with profound disabilities experienced as well.
Just a moment ago, the man's feet and ankles were dead and lifeless. He was immobile. But as Jesus' name entered the halls of his ears, he received new life in his legs and feet, and more importantly in his soul. Continue reading with me the second half of verse 8: "Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God."
This man needed far more than spare change. He needed Jesus and the healing that only Jesus could provide for his body and soul. What do you think you need right now? You may not be reaching out your hand for spare change, but you probably require change of some sort in your life.
All of us are disabled in some way. We're crippled spiritually because we don't love Christ and serve him wholeheartedly. Some of us in this room are stretching out our hands, hoping that God might give us love in the form of a spouse, a marriage partner. We want a husband or a wife who we think will satisfy us. Some of us are reaching out for a new job or a promotion we think will grant us happiness. Some of us are hoping to receive the gift of a child we think will give us greater satisfaction. While none of these things are necessarily wrong, God has something greater in store for our lives.
We are like the man in this story who thought he knew what he needed. He wanted some dimes and quarters to get him through the day. He had little hope. He had little vision. He had little expectations. Instead of asking for a fishing net, he was happy to get a bite of leftover salmon. The human heart seeks satisfaction in anything and everything but Jesus Christ. Yet, he's exactly what we need.
Tullian Tchividjian is a pastor in Florida and the grandson of Billy Graham. He recently wrote a book with a wonderful life equation called Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Is this equation true of our lives? Tullian found great satisfaction in being well-liked and appreciated by others. But, as he shares in his book, he faced opposition when he was installed as the senior pastor after his church merged with Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where D. James Kennedy served as senior pastor for over 40 years.
I'd never realized before how dependent I'd become on human approval and acceptance until so much of it was taken away in the rolling controversy at Coral Ridge. Before, in every church I'd been a part of, I was widely accepted and approved and appreciated. I'd always felt loved in church. Now, for the first time, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being deeply disliked and distrusted, and by more than a few people. Now I realized just how much I'd been relying on something other than—something more than—the approval and acceptance and love that were already mine in Jesus …. I was being challenged by God to more fully understand exactly what I already had in Christ. For far longer than I recognized, I had been depending on the endorsement of others to validate me—to make me feel that I mattered. God began rescuing me from that slavery by forcing me to rediscover the gospel …. His good news met me in my dark place, at my deepest need. Through his liberating word, I was being transformed, free, refreshed.
What are we seeking in this life to bring us satisfaction? Are we seeking satisfaction through worldly success, through wealth, through careers, through status, through fancy homes and fancy cars, by living out our dreams vicariously through our children, or in hearing the praise of people? Is Jesus enough for us? Does Jesus plus nothing else equal everything to us?
Notice the response of the man after being healed by God in body and soul. At the beginning of the story, all this man wanted was to satisfy his physical need through money, but he soon discovered that he really needed Jesus. After receiving the name of Jesus in his life, his immediate reaction was to sing praise to God.
Satisfaction is found in bringing God glory.
Verses 9-10 say, "When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him."
In his utter astonishment and excitement, the man could have left Peter and John behind in the dust and run off with his newly found freedom after being miraculously healed by them. But instead, this man with disabilities chose to walk with them into the temple for all the worshipers to witness what God had just done in his life through the healing and saving power of Jesus' name.
Those who had come for afternoon prayer that day saw this man walking and praising God. Luke reminds us for a second time that this was indeed the same man they saw every single day panhandling outside of the temple gate called Beautiful. This same man was now walking, jumping in the air, and praising God. And the entire temple was brimming with wonder and astonishment at what they had just witnessed.
What we can learn from this man's story? We want to satisfy physical needs, but satisfaction is found in Jesus and in bringing God glory. You can imagine all the people in the temple praising God as a result of the transformation that took place in this man's life. The man's witness brought praise to God, contagious praise. So often in this life, what we want is not what we really need.
In her article, "Satisfaction in the Savior," a young Christian woman named Cantiese Burrell tells a story about her friend and his remarkable family. At dinner, he and his siblings finish their plates, head over to their dad's side of the table, and begin eating off his plate. They did this ritual every evening. Burrell writes:
These children had all eaten, but none of them were satisfied until they could eat something from their father's plate. In the same manner, God is our heavenly Father and no matter what we have eaten or what we have been drinking of this world, satisfaction only comes when we eat from his plate. In Christ Jesus, God has prepared a spiritual plate for all to take part and eat from. Jesus is the source and the sustainer of life.
As I think back on my life, I have been most satisfied when I was head-over-heels in love with Jesus Christ, when Jesus alone brought me satisfaction. The greatest moments of satisfaction also came when, in some small way, my life has brought God praise. Like the man in Acts 3, perhaps we've been focusing on the wrong things to bring us satisfaction. Only Jesus and living for him can truly satisfy every longing in our hearts.
Matthew D. Kim is Professor of Practical Theology and the Hubert H. and Gladys S. Raborn Chair of Pastoral Leadership at Truett Seminary, Baylor University.