A Mormon bishop (not pictured here) recently disguised himself as a homeless man to encourage more compassion in his congregation.

The Homeless Mormon Bishop

A Mormon bishop (not pictured here) recently disguised himself as a homeless man to encourage more compassion in his congregation.

A Mormon bishop (not pictured here) recently disguised himself as a homeless man to encourage more compassion in his congregation.

Last week, the Mormon newswire was dominated by a single story, that of a bishop in Utah who disguised himself as a homeless beggar in order to challenge his congregation to show greater charity. According to KUTV and Fox News:

He received varied reactions to his appearance at church. At least five people asked him to leave the church property, some gave him money and most were indifferent.

"Many actually went out of their way to purposefully ignore me, and they wouldn't even make eye contact," he told the Deseret News. "I'd approach them and say, 'Happy Thanksgiving.' Many of them I wouldn't ask for any food or any kind of money, and their inability to even acknowledge me being there was very surprising."

The bishop was interviewed on NPR, humbly describing what he did and why. The story has been picked up by a newswire as far away as Japan.

Why are people so fascinated by this simple anecdote of a Mormon bishop doing something out of the ordinary? This kind of action is not unusual among other religions. A friend of mine whose husband is an Episcopal priest told me that just before his ordination, he and two other ordinands were instructed to go out on the streets of Boston for three days and live as homeless people. They had no money and no place to go, and it was very cold outside.

What they learned over those three days taught them not only about the charity (or lack thereof) of Christians, but also about the vulnerability of life on the streets. They were hungry, frozen, and unsafe. And forever after in their ministry, they had a special compassion for anyone who was hungry, frozen, and unsafe.

It’s not that unique a tale. [tweetable] Why is the story of one Mormon bishop disguising himself as a homeless man for an hour or two captivating the public imagination?[/tweetable]

Part of it is surely the unexpected juxtaposition of the words "Mormon bishop" and "prankster." (Would that someone had caught people’s reactions on camera!) I also think that among Mormons, the story is encouraging because it is so uncorrelated. This rogue Bishop seems to have acted alone, having only informed one of his counselors about his plan.

But going deeper, there’s a theological lesson at the core.

Matthew 25 is full of unforgettable imagery about sheep and the goats and how our actions here -- what we do to one another -- have some bearing on our eternal future. This is a frightening thought. This is one of those passages in the Bible that is uncomfortably sticky, with a very matter-of-fact Jesus indicating that whatever we do or do not do to one another on this earth helps to determine where we spend eternity.

And it’s not just in this passage where we see the notion replayed that what we do to one another, we do directly to Jesus. Over the weekend I was helping my daughter with a project for her religion class and we read Acts 9, in which Paul has his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. I had never noticed before how Jesus' question -- "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" -- expresses this precise dynamic. Saul had been persecuting Christians, putting them in prison and worse.

Jesus apparently takes that quite personally. Whatever Saul had done to harm Jesus' followers, Saul had done to Jesus himself.

So I love the story of how this Mormon bishop called attention to some hypocrisy within our ranks. He knew that his ward members would never have shown a bishop the disrespect and ostracism that he experienced in his brief cameo as a homeless person.

On a personal note, I have been following the story because that bishop's actions and my own on that same day are so different. I was in Baltimore on November 24, doing a talk and book signing at a Roman Catholic Church. When I arrived that morning, it was freezing cold, and my friend and I were primarily concerned with bringing the heavy boxes of books from the car trunk inside the church as quickly as we could.

We saw that the historic church was located next to a public park in which many homeless people were congregating. Yet we did not stop to see about their welfare; we had things to do! Even after the book signing was over and I had free time, I did not use it to go to the park; I got in my car and drove away so I could spend time with my dear friend. In fact, the only thing I did to help a homeless person that day was to give away a book for free to someone who wanted it but could not afford to pay.

What if one of those people was Jesus? What if they all were Jesus?

Sometimes I am a truly shitty Christian.