The Mass readings lately have been focused on Jesus’ time travelling from village to village, teaching and healing the sick. It struck me, as I reflected on the readings, that though Jesus responded to the pleas of the synagogue official and the Roman centurion, he deliberately spent the majority of his time with the poor. He seemed to be always drawn to those in obvious need, the stigmatized, the forgotten, the outcasts, the invisible ones. Matthew 9 says that Jesus “saw the crowds and had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Why is it that we so often feel drawn to people on the other end of the spectrum? We give our attention to the powerful, the good-looking, the rich, the talented, the confident ones who are very successful at looking after themselves. I guess we naturally lean towards people whom we secretly strive to be – and who strives to be an outcast? But Jesus invites us to follow in his footsteps, to walk with him down the dusty back roads, seeking the people that normally garner no one’s attention.
I was thinking about all this when I was at a mall near our house yesterday. I found myself with some time to kill as I waited for my son to finish an errand. I plunked myself down on a bench, happy to get off my feet for a few minutes and, as is my habit, got my iPhone out of my backpack to check my email, have a peek at Facebook and maybe text a friend. But then I reflected again about the choices Jesus made as he wandered around the countryside with his disciples – about how he chose to counsel the lost, heal the sick, rescue the demon-possessed, give sight to the blind, give a voice to the voiceless. I put away my iPhone and looked around me. And there, sitting on the other end of the bench, was an elderly man whom I hadn’t even noticed.
He had long greasy white hair, a stringy beard, baggy flannel pants and an old gray jacket. His glasses were dirty and askew on his wrinkled face. He smiled at me, and I noticed he had a front tooth missing. I smiled back and thought about God’s sense of humour in this chance encounter. I made a remark to the old man about how nice it was to sit down and take a break. We chatted about the weather, and I noticed he had a slight English accent. I took a deep breath as our conversation about the weather came to an end, and asked him if he was from England. Well, it was like a dam suddenly burst.
The old man started telling me about his boyhood days in a little village in Kent, how he came to Canada with his wife shortly after they were married, how they never were able to have children but they had a very happy life together, how his wife died a few years ago, how a very kind neighbour was keeping an eye on him and sometimes brought him soup. I found out that he lives close to the mall, and that it’s an almost daily destination for him and his trusty walker. He was funny, and engaging, and sweet, and smart – and it hurt me to think that most days he has nobody to talk to. Pretty soon I didn’t even notice his missing tooth and his funny pants.
I was almost sad when my son arrived, errand complete. I told the old man how much I’d enjoyed our chat, and was surprised to realize that it was true. I also told him I’d look for him next time I’m at the mall. I want to hear more about his boyhood days in England, and I’d love to find out what brought him to Canada. I want to know more about his wife, whom he spoke about so fondly. I’d like to invite him to join my son and I at the mall’s Food Fair for a bite to eat.
The Responsorial Psalm in today’s Liturgy of the Word is from Psalm 102: “Seek always the face of the Lord.” That’s what the Holy Spirit was leading me to do at the mall yesterday, I think...with St. Francis cheering me on. And I am richer for it.
"Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members -- the last, the least, the littlest." ~Cardinal Roger Mahony