We live in a society in which admitting one’s own sins is seen as a sign of weakness.
I was reminded of Ishmael when recently I saw a homeless teenage boy being interviewed on TV. He explained that he was on the streets because his step-father had thrown him out of the house.
The issue of homelessness is something that we cannot avoid if ever we venture into a major city. All over the place we see homeless people in the most tragic circumstances: some trying to sleep in a doorway with their few worldly possessions in carrier bags around them, maybe with a scrawny dog to guard them; some clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, even early in the morning; some reduced to begging from passers-by; some being constantly moved on by the police.
Where I used to live, in Brussels, it was especially difficult. We knew that some of the beggars from Eastern Europe were being controlled by criminal gangs, who dropped them off in the morning at their begging stations from sleek Mercedes cars. We knew that some of the young children with their mothers were deliberately being drugged to elicit sympathy and donations. We knew that some people chose to live as homeless because they liked the sense of independence that it gave them. And we knew also that some were homeless simply through the tragedy of personal misfortune. But how to tell which of these applies to any particular person whom we come across?
Encountering homeless people on the street is really hard for me. I know that if Jesus had been passing by them he would have known exactly what to do; but I don’t seem to get guidance from him very often, and mostly I really don't know what to do. Charitable organisations working with the homeless tell us very definitely not to give them money, as this will not help them in the long term.
Sometimes I offer them food; and on one occasion recently in Brussels I had the most wonderful experience. A man from Bulgaria who was begging eagerly took up my offer of some food from the nearby sandwich bar. I asked him to order whatever he wanted; the sandwich was made up and he chose a drink. Then when I asked how much it came to, the assistants said, “No, there is no need to pay for this”; and when I insisted on paying, they remained quite insistent. I was deeply touched by this small yet significant display of human kindness.
What does all this have to do with Ishmael? I was reminded of him when recently I saw a homeless teenage boy being interviewed on TV; he explained that he was on the streets because his step-father had thrown him out of the house. That is exactly what happened to Ishmael: he and his mother were thrown out of the family home by his father at the instigation of his step-mother, Sarah – you can read about it in Genesis 21. Sarah saw him playing with her own son Isaac (the Hebrew word can mean either that they were playing together or he was mocking him), and something in her snapped. That boy and his mother have to go, she told her husband Abraham; and despite his misgivings, he sent them away, encouraged by God that this was the right thing to do and that he would look after them.
So off they went, a mother and her 15-year-old son, into the desert – the prospects for them were not good, especially in that male-dominated society. Yet God was as good as his word – as he always is. When they were ready to give up and die, he showed them a well of water, and that kept them alive. After that we know relatively little about Ishmael's life. He grew up to manhood, became an archer, married (Genesis 21:20-21), had 12 sons who were each tribal rulers, helped his half-brother Isaac with their father Abraham’s funeral, and died at the age of 137 (Genesis 25).
We are not told in the Bible whether Ishmael was a religious person. He was certainly not included in the covenant that God made with Abraham, but maybe his teenage experience of being miraculously provided for by God left a lasting impression on him. What we do know is that “God was with the boy as he grew up” (Genesis 21:20) and that he fulfilled the promise given to his mother, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count” (Genesis 16:10) – and that is exactly what has happened, 4,000 years later; for it is Ishmael who is the ancestor of many of the Arab peoples in the Middle East today.
So, next time you encounter a homeless person, remember that God has good purposes and plans for his or her life, just as he did for homeless Ishmael. That realisation may prompt you to speak to them, or to offer them some food, or maybe just to say a prayer for them, that God will protect them from adverse circumstances and provide for them, that he will help them to find the good purposes that he has for their life.