I saw an old brown dog on my run today. He started across the road in front of me after the manner of street dogs, fearful I might do him harm. His gait was such that for a moment
I thought I would have to swing wide to avoid hitting him, which I was quite prepared to do for fear of being contaminated. But then he shrank, dropping his head and scooting sideways, pulling crippled hindquarters, back to the roadside away from me.
Overall, his appearance was pathetic—his coat, a dirty oil rag. The obvious victim of a hard life, he was a reject, a dog nobody wanted. A useless dog, just taking up space and getting in the way of decent people out for a run on the streets of Dallas.
I wondered whether, when this poor creature was born, he caused such revulsion among onlookers. Was he, at birth, a scum-of-the-earth puppy? Or was he, rather, like every other puppy: loved by kids; romping, playing, threatening with an audacious puppy bark? Didn’t he run in circles and chase his puppy tail and get licked and nursed by his mother and have the promise of a good home? At the start, didn’t he have typical puppy innocence? Wasn’t he into everything, afraid of nothing—chewing on fingers, jerking on rags, wrestling cardboard boxes? Surely.
So how did he become a terrified street dog? Did his life just go wrong in bits and pieces? A little here, a little there? Probably. You don’t become a street dog overnight. You don’t become the lowest of the low, unawares. You don’t suddenly wake up one morning to an empty bag of Purina and head for the nearest dumpster. You don’t get used to having your ribs kicked in because you chewed the newspaper. No, it happens with street dogs the way it happens with people—a piece at a time, a process of attrition.
And like every other evil, such treatment comes not from animals, but humans. It isn’t other dogs that produce street dogs, but people. And people that cuddle the cute little puppies of this world may be the very people that kick old, dirty street dogs. Some of them, doubtless, are the same people that treat other people like dogs as well.
It’s a hard thing to understand, but the creep that almost sideswiped you on your way to work has a mother. Somebody likes him. Somebody thinks he’s a good guy. Somewhere, someone, believe it or not, desires his company…in exactly the same way a few uninformed souls still desire your company—or mine.
That’s right, we’re guilty. Neither of us deserves to be accepted and loved any more than the creep, because we’re creeps, too. He almost sideswiped us because he was selfishly focused, but we nearly hit the guy down the street. The problem isn’t that we’re usually nice, but that we’re sometimes not. At times, caught up in ourselves, we regard others with contempt—others who, like us, are created in the image of God.
My dad once brought home a beat-up street dog of a person named Leon to help around his apartments. I felt the same way about Leon as I did about that mutt on the street: I didn’t want to be near him. He was dirty, unlovely, and suffering a hangover. He smelled bad. He emanated the worst effects of decadent living. I was strongly inclined to avoid him and felt my aversion justified by his deplorable hygiene and depraved demeanor. But my father didn’t ask about my aversion. He told me to feed him and help him recover. I held a cup to his lips as he drank. And I soon realized I had opened a very thick book.
In Luke 18:9–14, Jesus addressed “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else,” telling a parable of two men who went to the temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector. In prayer the Pharisee offered thanks to God that he was more virtuous than the other, plainly demonstrating the contempt he held for the tax collector. Magnifying his own importance, he set little or no value on the tax collector and others of like stripe. The tax collector made no such comparisons but simply humbled himself and sought God’s forgiveness.
Jesus found fault not with the tax collector, the more brazen sinner of the two, but rather the Pharisee, because of his prideful exercise of scorn. “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Seldom, it seems, do we censure ourselves for acting the Pharisee. Rather, wrongly making comparisons on the basis of worldly criteria, we are easily persuaded to overvalue ourselves and underrate others. I may swell inside if my house is larger, my neighborhood better than yours. You may inflate with self-importance upon realizing you have more friends in high places than a Mafia don. But all such perceptions are shallow and worldly, and they distort our ability to see truly. They lead to inadequate thinking and the ill-advised deeds it produces—especially in interpersonal relations.
Sitting in a clean, comfortable church pew on Sunday morning, we readily agree we mustn’t be full of ourselves nor compare ourselves with others on the basis of false temporal values. Christ summons us to a higher standard. The tough part comes on Tuesday afternoon when we’re challenged to help our rogue neighbor repair the “junker” car we wish he would junk. At such times we definitely need an antidote to Pharisaical thinking.
God provides it in His Word, which admonishes, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment…” (Rom. 12:3). The first step in breaking a tendency toward disdain for others is a hard look in the mirror. Taken honestly, this step not only humbles us, but makes room for love in our hearts by evicting pride.
In thinking about how to properly treat unlovely people from all backgrounds, I find helpful the notion that someone else looks at me with contempt. To some, my coat is grimy with street splatter and accumulated filth. I am scarred and repulsive, beat-up and mangy in their eyes. They fear if I get too close I will somehow contaminate them. I know they avoid me; I feel their rejection. When in their presence, I want only to escape. I feel everything from them but understanding and compassion.
Their perception, of course, is flawed. I’m not the person they perceive. I am, like them, created in the image and likeness of God. As such, I deserve to be treated with love and respect. And since this is true of me, it is also true of those whom I might scorn. For my
Creator is their Creator. Whether they know it or not, I know it: they are made in His image. And I must love them accordingly.
In the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37), Jesus paints a picture of how we ought to love our neighbor. Referring to the familiar admonition of the second greatest commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Mark 12:31), a lawyer challenges Jesus to define just who his neighbor is. Jesus answers by telling the story, whereupon the lawyer rightly concludes that the neighbor to the injured man was “the one who had mercy on him,” the Samaritan. Jesus then states the major ethical directive of the parable: “Go and do likewise.”
Like overturning tables in the temple, Jesus flips the lawyer’s feigned interest in his neighbor into a command to go and be a neighbor. The lawyer, rather than gaining for himself “wiggle room” in his moral obligations, gets hemmed in by a more specific, more restrictive definition of the love required of him. By implication, the same clear, exacting love directive applies to us as well.
Essentially, we are left without excuse. The command to love my neighbor as I love myself is clear. The command to actually be a neighbor—to “go and do likewise”—is equally clear, requiring me to show him mercy. The sum of these requirements, love and mercy, precludes any possibility of justifiably treating my neighbor with scorn or derision. Moreover, none of these commands is conditioned upon circumstances of social status, financial ability, pleasant conditions, or anything of the sort. I am without excuse. And so are you.
Just as I correctly understand that every newborn puppy deserves affection and the promise of a wholesome life, I see by analogy that every social outcast was born with the potential for a life of meaning and personal fulfillment. I comprehend, moreover, that at some point, others felt perfectly justified in making those puppies or those humans the objects of their contempt. I don’t know how such a point is reached by anyone, but I do know it is wrong. Love is the standard and the command. Those who extend love to some of God’s creatures must not show contempt for others; all are equally the product of His hand. As we have the capacity to love and care deeply for some, we must challenge the mindset which permits us to willfully mistreat any.
I would prefer to serve the Lord in clean, attractive, sweet-smelling conditions. Sometimes those conditions are granted, but they are not promised. Our Lord Jesus has promised, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). And the apostle Paul says, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). In a word, I am commanded to be kind and compassionate to all. Conditions may be pleasant; they may be unpleasant. I am obligated nonetheless.
In fact, we all are obligated. We should all begin to look differently at the dirty old dogs of this world, and then show them some love. The next one your neighbor sees may be you.