Scenario 1: Pulling onto the highway exit ramp, I notice a “homeless” man asking for change. “There’s no way he’s actually homeless,” I think to myself, sparing no judgment while making sure my doors are locked.
Scenario 2: My roommate’s car broke down and now he’s asking to borrow mine. What a loser. Does he think I exist solely to meet his needs?
Scenario 3: A friend comes to me for help with a personal issue. Does he not see I have my own things to worry about? I mean, he didn’t even ask if I had time to talk.
Common denominator: All three of these people could be Jesus in disguise.
I know that sounds really weird. But, according to both Kendrick Lamar and Jesus Himself that may very well be the case.
Kendrick Lamar’s song, “How Much a Dollar Cost,” off his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, directly expounds upon this very issue.
In the song, Kendrick tells about an encounter with a homeless man at a gas station in South Africa. The man asks Kendrick for the equivalent of one U.S. dollar, but Kendrick refuses, saying that it is not his job to take care of every bum on the street. Kendrick goes on to elaborate angrily, stating how he thinks the homeless man will use the money for drugs.
The lyrics below show this moment:
He’s starin’ at me in disbelief
My temper is buildin’, he’s starin’ at me, I grab my key
He’s starin’ at me, I started the car, then I tried to leave
And somethin’ told me to keep it in park until I could see
The reason why he was mad at a stranger
Like I was supposed to save him
Like I’m the reason he’s homeless and askin’ me for a favor
He’s starin’ at me, his eyes followed me with no laser
He’s starin’ at me, I notice that his stare is contagious
Cause now I’m starin’ back at him, feelin’ some type of disrespect
If I could throw a bat at him, it’d be aimin’ at his neck
I never understood someone beggin’ for goods
Askin’ for handouts, takin’ it if they could
I especially like the tension shown with the two staring at one another. Kendrick gets so mad at the homeless man that he even fantasizes about hitting him with a bat.
Are we ever that honest with ourselves?
Anyway, as the song goes on Kendrick continues to get angry at the man and starts to rationalize his lack of giving with the following:
I should distance myself, I should keep it relentless
My selfishness is what got me here, who the fuck I’m kiddin’?
So I’mma tell you like I told the last bum
Crumbs and pennies, I need all of mines
And I recognize this type of panhandlin’ all the time
I got better judgement, I know when nigga’s hustlin’, keep in mind
When I was strugglin’, I did compromise, now I comprehend
I don’t know about you, but I can relate to this type of thinking. How am I supposed to help others (especially when it inconveniences me) when I need to worry about all the million issues in my own life? Besides, most people are probably just trying to take, anyway.
The song really gets interesting, though, once the homeless man reveals who he actually is:
He looked at me and said, “Know the truth, it’ll set you free
You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit
The nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God”
What in the world? He’s God? I didn’t see that one coming…
Turns out, this is a pretty clear reference to Matthew 25, where Jesus says:
37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
In short, He is saying that how we treat people in need directly correlates with how we “treat” Jesus. Being a follower of Him is not merely academic, rather it should result in an outpouring of love to those around us.
Overall, I love the level of honesty Kendrick displays when tackling such a tough issue. It’s so easy to say that we “want to love” other people, but man is it difficult. On the first level, it’s hard because we are so wildly selfish when it comes down to it. If we get past that, though, it tends to get complicated when there are so many different options pulling for our attention. I mean, just go to a website like GoFundMe and you’ll quickly become overwhelmed with all the areas of need.
Still, Jesus simply states that “when you did (or didn’t) do it (serve/love/etc.) to one of the least of these… you were doing it (or weren’t) to me.”
It’s a high calling, one that Kendrick notices deeply.
He starts the last stanza with:
I wash my hands, I said my grace
What more do you want from me?
Here Kendrick is probably referencing Pontius Pilate, who famously “washed his hands” of Jesus when He was on trial before His crucifixion. Like Pilate, Kendrick is trying to escape some blame. Pilate did this by saying it wasn’t his fault that Jesus would be killed, since the crowd urged him to make the sentence. Kendrick, too, is saying he’s not directly responsible for the man’s homelessness.
However, the last few lines tell his final state of mind:
Tears of a clown, guess I’m not all what is meant to be
Shades of grey will never change if I condone
Turn this page, help me change, so right my wrongs
Finally, he asks God to help him change. Kendrick does not offer any other grandiose conclusion about the problem of pain or suffering, but rather simply asks for help to start viewing and acting toward others with compassion.
Will we do the same?