Today is Good Friday, and some people ask what’s good about a bad news day that commemorates crucifixion. Sunday is Easter, a good news day that everyone could share, but let’s face it: Most humans around the world don’t, and the number of Americans who do is declining. That’s sad but not surprising, and to explain why I’ll introduce what may be for you a new word and some new thoughts concerning homelessness.
The new word is pedologist, a scientist who studies the origins, composition and distribution of soils. The root of the word is the Greek pe´don, soil. If you are a seed sower, a pedologist might be able to tell you where your labors are likely to be fruitful and where you are wasting seed and time. Jesus was a super pedologist. Those He called came to Him, often running. Some people say He made a mistake with Judas, but Jesus needed a betrayer to fulfill the eternal plan of crucifixion and then resurrection. (And, since Jesus was betrayed, we know He can feel all our pain when we are betrayed.)
You and I are not super pedologists: No human being is. Jesus taught the apostles and all of us with that in mind. One parable in the Gospel of Mark concerns a sower who tosses some seed that falls on a path, “and the birds came and devoured it.” Other seed falls on rocky ground, becomes sun-scorched, and withers away. Other seed falls among thorns and yields no grain. Only the fourth kind of sowing is productive: “Seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
Jesus spelled out the meaning to his disciples. The seeds are biblical teaching, which affects some lives momentarily and others temporarily, but then becomes fruitless under the pressure of tribulation, persecution, or materialism. Some persevere, often surprisingly — which is why Christians often like to hear “testimonies” of spiritual journeys.
No algorithm, though, tells us which seeds will prove useless and which enormously productive. Calvinists believe some are predestined to sink deep roots and others (in God’s mysterious providence) to wither, but we don’t know which are which. Wise pastors do their best to present God’s good news persuasively to all. They do not agonize about whether they’ve succeeded in persuasion: That’s up to God.
Let’s apply this secularly to helping the homeless. “Homeless” is the umbrella term for people unhoused for a variety of reasons. A common denominator is the catastrophic loss of personal relationships: People bonded to family and friends may have to sleep on couches for a while, but they’re usually not homeless. The sequel to Robert Putnam’s quarter-century-old book, Bowling Alone, is Homeless Alone. A homeless person needs compassion, in its literal meaning of suffering with a person in need.
A realization that sowing has four outcomes, and three of them are bad, may be discouraging, but it’s also realistic. In the 1990s, when I interviewed numerous homeless people and a year later checked back about them, I was often surprised to learn who was making it and who was not. I learned not to predict. We are blind sowers, and the only way to have partial success is to continue sprinkling seeds.
We can learn from our predecessors: Don’t assume good soil, don’t assume bad soil. Give everyone a chance. Test, don’t detest. Those who ran homeless shelters a century ago learned not to predict. When an able-bodied man in almost any U.S. city asked an agency for relief, he often was asked to chop wood or to whitewash a building. A needy woman generally went to the “sewing room” (often near a childcare room) and worked on garments to be donated to those suffering the effects of hurricanes or tornadoes.
A personal note: I’ve only been homeless for about ten days, and that was by choice, but I was spiritually homeless for ten years. I needed God’s intervention. To echo Martin Luther, Ceylon pastor D. T. Niles, and American evangelical scholar D. A. Carson, I now see myself as a poor beggar telling other poor beggars where to find bread. One reason Miserable Friday is Good Friday: It cuts through fashionable sociological algorithms. In 33 years of reporting I’ve seen that the most successful battles against homelessness are Christ-saturated.