You don’t hear much about Hobos anymore. I actually had not thought of them in a long time, until the afternoon I heard my wife reading a book to my oldest son in which a hobo was mentioned. Now for anyone that does not know, the term hobo is believed to have originated in the United States somewhere around 1890. A hobo is defined as a migratory worker, or a homeless vagabond. It is sometimes lumped together with tramps or bums, but a hobo would see themselves as distinctly different from either. A hobo always wanted to work at least in some way for food, whereas a tramp prefers to travel only working when necessary, and a bum neither works nor travels except when all other options are gone.
There was a whole sub-culture that went with hobo’s and “riding the rails”, that mostly lost art of traveling the country hopping freight trains. Part of that culture included leaving messages for other hobos who might come after you about which places were safe, what houses might give a meal and which ones would give a beating instead. So hobos made marks to leave these messages for others. You can actually find a lot of information about the marks on the internet, and it is an interesting study.
On this particular afternoon my wife was reading “A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt” by C. Coco de Young to our oldest son. They were studying the Great Depression and this book tells the story of a little girl in 1933 trying to help her Papa keep from losing the family’s house and business. While the story is a work of fiction, according to the Author’s note the heart of the story was true.
The particular section being read was (page 43-44):
I remembered one day a boy just a little older than me came to our back door. He told Mama he’d gladly work for a bite to eat. It must have been hard for Mama, because she stood there for a long time and didn’t say a word.
The boy finally said, “Sorry to have bothered you, ma’am. Your house has the mark on it. I’ll go now.”
Something he said or did woke Mama up from her daydream because she grabbed him by the arm and said, “No, no, figlio mio, my son. I’ll make you a sandwich while you take that laundry off the clothesline for me. You can set it in the basket on the ground.”
Papa insisted that Mama give the hobos a small job when they asked, “It lets them swallow their food with dignity,” he always said.
I remembered how Mama made the young man two large sandwiches, then sent me outside to give them to him. He had the clothes neatly folded and stacked in the basket. “Gee, thanks,” I said, “that would have been my job. You can sit on the porch and eat.”
He was very polite and explained that he wouldn’t have troubled us, except that the mark on the brick foundation of our front porch was a sign other hobos put there to say it was okay to knock on our door. When he left, I looked for the mark in the spot where he mentioned. It was there in chalk – a circle with an X in the center. When I showed Papa later that evening, he went out and traced it in white paint. It’s still there.¹
When I heard my wife read this passage my mind drifted off as sometimes happens. I began to wonder, “If my life where a house, what marks would a hobo put on my foundation?”
Would they be marks meaning something like “Kindhearted man”, “Good for food”, or “Can Sleep in Barn.”? Or perhaps, would the marks about my life be something else, like “Hobos arrested on sight”, “Danger! Brutal Man!”, or “No food here”?
What if I were to picture every interaction with another person as that little boy standing at the door of my life? What marks would he have seen, and what mark would he leave for the next person I see?
Proverbs 20:11 Even small children are known by their actions, so is their conduct really pure and upright?
I John 3:16-18 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
I think for me the big question here is one of examining myself. In the book “A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt”, once the father in the story knew about the hobo’s mark and what it meant he took action. The mark had been made in chalk which would wash away easily, but he took paint out and painted the mark on his own foundation. He was saying in essence, “Come here for food, let me help.” At this point in the story, he is deep in debt, the Great Depression is raging, and providing for his own family is becoming more and more of a daunting task. Yet, he chose to show love to others.
I wonder how many of us, would place such a mark on our spiritual house? Would we be willing to put it out there for all to see, “Hey come here, I might be struggling but let me help you with what I have. Come for food, for comfort, for acceptance, for the love of Jesus!” Can you just imagine if you could put a message like that on your life for all to see?
The problem as I see it, is that through our action or inaction we do put a message out for all to see. If we see children going to school without their basic needs met, and we manage to be indifferent about it because “Their parents spend it all on drugs”, “I just don’t want to get involved”, or any one of the other excuses we tell ourselves, we are putting a mark on our spiritual foundation. Only this mark says something like, “Go away, you are not worth my time and resources.” The Bible is very clear that if we can see someone in need, have the resources to help, and turn a blind eye, then the love of God is not in us.
However, if we like the Father in the story, take action we choose what mark to mark our lives with. We can choose to be people who show the love of Jesus in every interaction, every day. Not that we won’t fail at times, because we most likely will. The overall theme of our life will shine through however. I am reminded also of how Jesus described the sorting of the sheep and the goats in Matthew. In this passage the King is commending the sheep for feeding him, clothing him, inviting him in, etc. The confused sheep don’t understand when they did this:
Matthew 25:40 The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
The least of these I believe could be fairly described as hobos, or maybe even tramps, or bums. It is how we treat these, the least, the “worthless”, the despised, the inconvenient ones, that defines how we treat Jesus. It is how we treat these that makes the identifying mark on our spiritual foundation.
In another passage of the Bible, Jesus describes Himself in a way that sounds a lot like a hobo. Both Matthew and Luke record a conversation Jesus had with a man who claimed to want to follow Him.
Matthew 8:19-20 Then a teacher of the law came to Him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”
In yet another Jesus describes the source of His food, Spiritual food. It is the story of the woman at the well. Jesus had sent His disciples into town to buy food, while He waited outside of town at the well. In the story Jesus tells the woman ( a known adulteress) about Himself, she believes in Him, and runs back to town to tell others. Ultimately a great number of Samaritans believe in Him. When His disciples return and start urging Him to eat, Jesus had this puzzling statement:
John 4:32 But He said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
I am sure his disciples were confused, after all Jesus had sent them for food, now He says that He has food.
John 4:33 Then His disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought Him food?”
Then Jesus brings the intriguing answer:
John 4:34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work…”
After a couple of days pondering this spiritual hobo mark and how it applies to my life, I started to take another look at the idea of Jesus as a hobo. We are called to follow the Master, Jesus, and have our lives transformed into a reflection of His. We know that Jesus came to do the will of His Father in Heaven. He also gave us marching orders:
Matthew 28:19-20 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
I believe that it is very easy to allow our culture to distort our perspective of the Great Commission, and our responsibilities as a Christian. We are not called to work until we are 65, save for our children’s college and our retirement, buy a house, then a bigger house, watch the news and the latest sports game, finally retire to a beach in Florida for shuffle board and Bingo. We are called for so much more! What does this so much more look like?
Jesus always was focused on “The Mission”. His mission was to seek and to save the lost. He did this through His atoning death on Calvary, and resurrection conquering the grave, sin, and death. Through His teachings we can find the path to true Life. By earthly values, Jesus was a hobo, or vagabond. He had no job, remember he walked away from a promising career as a carpenter. He had no house, one of His “friends” betrayed Him for a small pile of cash, He had absolutely nothing that the culture of the time placed value on. What He had was an unswerving commitment to God’s plan.
That is what He desires from us as well. Not that we need to be destitute wanderers, but rather that we do not make our pleasure and comfort in this world our focal point. What if we, like spiritual hobos, like Jesus did, took this day and found our food in doing God’s will. What if we found our comfort in comforting others? What if we found our rest in God’s Word, and then gave that Word hands and feet by our actions? What if we viewed ourselves as hobos on a journey through life, traveling to heaven, not content to stay where we are, but rather always pushing on?
I would like to challenge all people that say they are Christian, to do something courageous. I challenge us all to do something radical, let us intentionally make a mark on our lives that says we will show the love of Jesus to all people God puts in our path. I challenge us to be courageous enough to live life as if we truly believed that every interaction we have with someone could be their only chance to hear or see the Gospel by how we live. I challenge us to act as if we truly believed that more than lives are at stake, people’s eternal destiny is at stake. If we as God’s people could all do one thing a day to try to touch one life in one place in time for Jesus, God will do great things.
That is the mark I want on my spiritual foundation.
What mark do you want on yours?
¹ De Young, C Coco: A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt: Random House, Inc., New York, 1999, print