For Christians, it should be easy and clear-cut. Jesus challenges his believers, first, to imagine themselves in his role. The follower of Jesus aims to do what Jesus himself would do–help, heal, give, care. If you put yourself in Jesus’ sandals, and look at the beggar through his eyes, you don’t see a beggar, but a spirit of pure light, whom you love unconditionally. (Then, comes the second and greater challenge: to act accordingly.)
But here is the amazing part. Compared with this other thing, to imagine Jesus in the role of helper and healer is easy. But he didn’t stop there. He forged ahead into the territory of real weirdness, asking the faithful to perform a leap of imagination–What if Jesus were not the helper and healer, but the beggar? Throughout human history, gods were conceived as big, huge, powerful, rich, awesome; they were visualized as covered with gold and jewels, wielding thunderbolts. And here was a god asking to be imagined as a street person. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
That’s the audacious idea he planted in people’s heads and hearts. If you do something for the most wretched flotsam of humanity, it’s the same as doing it for him. Now, the challenge is enormous. Could that really be Jesus, disguised as a stinking derelict? You never know, but what you do know is, he wants you to act like it’s him.
Even an atheist can adapt this method, by imagining the beggar as one’s own most dearly-loved human. If the person you love unconditionally were in that situation, how would you want her or him to be treated by a stranger? You would want your loved one to be helped and healed. Or the very least, to be told “no” in a polite way, without abuse. When considering what to do about the beggar, this mental exercise points the way.