Yesterday I experienced two different, but similar, encounters on my way to and from Mass. Walking toward the rehearsal room for choir practice, I noticed an old man sitting on the slight curb along the sidewalk and the rectory fence. He was "new" to that spot; usually there is a grizzled middle-aged man there, sometimes a weary black man. Either way, there is generally a man there with an outstretched hand. The very fact primed me to expect a request for money, and in anticipation, I found myself feeling very much like a deer in the headlights: unable to respond to the actual request by the person who was actually before me. Granted, his words were a common enough prelude to a request for immediate financial assistance, but I was unable to hear anything but that. Not that I can do much of anything financial, but people deserve a hearing.
After Mass, I would have taken "a different way" if I could have, but the old man was no longer there. Instead, I had hardly passed the spot, when I crossed paths with a tottering and filthy younger man with a desperate face. He stumbled down the sidewalk, but seeing me, called out loudly, "Ma'am! Ma'am!" I knew which "Ma'am" he meant, of course. "I'm HUNGRY!" And he gestured toward his open mouth. Back came the sensation of being caught in more than one set of headlights. I forgot all about the granola bar I had tucked into the pocket of my backpack. I just wanted to get away from the danger of being assailed by so many needs.
Today's Gospel brings me right back to those experiences, because here I see Jesus being confronted by a needy person. The woman in today's Gospel wasn't asking Jesus for anything. Perhaps she had been reduced to T.S. Eliot's "quiet desperation." Instead, Jesus looked and saw her, not her need. And he didn't see her as the others there saw her--a cripple, a demon-possessed unfortunate. He saw a "daughter of Abraham." And he called to her, "Woman, you are set free of your infirmity." The very next sentence says that he then "laid hands upon her." Surely, that means that Jesus practically bounded to her side, because if he had had to "call to her" she must have been far enough away that she couldn't have heard Jesus in his "inside voice." And she was probably too crippled to hobble over to him very quickly. No, I see Jesus recognizing this woman as she was, and restoring her external dignity as fast as he could. Carryl Houselander came to mind. The British police used to call this chain-smoking daily communicant to the station house when they had a particularly violent and criminally insane prisoner. She was able to speak to them, calm them, restore their dignity.
That's the kind of vision I need Jesus to share with me. To be able to see people with his own eyes, as persons, as the dwelling-place of God and not as categories or problems.