Column: The distressing disguise of Jesus

by Jan Lewis

On Nov. 11, the church celebrates the feast of St. Martin of Tours.

In his encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”), Pope Benedict XVI holds St. Martin up as one of the models of Christian charity.

As a young man, Martin — a soldier at the time — came upon a beggar at the gates of the city of Amiens, France. Seeing the man shivering in the
cold, Martin took his military cloak and tore it into two pieces, giving one half to the beggar and keeping the other for himself. In a dream that night, Jesus appeared to Martin wearing the half cloak that he had given away.

I wonder how St. Martin would have reacted if the beggar had rejected his offer of the torn cloak. Can you imagine the beggar saying, “What am I going to do with half a cloak?” and throwing it on the ground?

I suspect that as a saint of the church, Martin would have responded with even greater love and compassion — recognizing that the beggar’s distress went far beyond his physical discomfort.

I am not a saint. Recently I received an uncomfortable phone call from one of the clients who had just visited our food pantry in north Johnson County. She complained about the quantity of food she had received (only two sacks, why not four!) and the “quality” of the food in the sacks. The woman was particularly put out with a box of Cocoa Puffs and a can of crushed tomatoes.

Evidently she didn’t like Cocoa Puffs and wanted to know what she was supposed to do with crushed tomatoes when we had not given her any pasta.

I found my own anger rising and I began to make some very unflattering judgments about the woman. Rather than looking past her complaints to see someone who wanted to be recognized as an individual with unique needs, I saw only ingratitude and avarice.

Rather than listening with compassion, I leaped to defend and justify. I talked about all the people with needs that we try to serve. Instead, she needed to hear about my concern for her needs.

Mother Teresa once said that Jesus sometimes comes to us in a very distressing disguise, and that there are no chance encounters. God places certain people in our path to help us grow in our walk with him.

I can’t help but believe that I failed this particular test, but I learned from it nonetheless. This encounter with Jesus has caused me to reevaluate the motives for my actions: Am I really focused on others or am I more con- cerned about myself and how others see me?

I pray that Jesus will test me again, and that I will be able to react with true compassion the next time.

Jan Lewis is the executive director of Catholic Charities.

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