Skip to main content

A Challenging Encounter

Homeless person sleeping on park bench
Go and Do Likewise

By Nathalie Marytsch

It was a sweltering afternoon when I was travelling back home, and it reminded me that God’s love is for anyone, not just a few chosen pious or law-conforming individuals. I, too, can’t be complacent and decide whom to love, for God’s love includes everyone — yes everyone.

For those of you who have experienced traveling on buses in the West Midlands, Britain, you appreciate the small windows — which open only six inches at most — that keep you warm during the winter. However, when the weather gets hot, you think twice about the journey. On this particular afternoon the mercury had climbed to 81 degrees, and commuters were evidently uncomfortable due to the heat. To make matters more challenging, there was a homeless passenger whose evident lack of personal hygiene repelled everyone around him.

People on subway trainI was sitting a row behind the man and, continuously, I considered moving seats or even getting off the bus, as some of my fellow passengers had done. However, I chose not to. It wasn’t because I wanted to be some sort of hero, but because I felt challenged. Instead, I tried to imagine what this man’s early days had been like: his childhood, his youth. What events led him to have that scruffy appearance, with all sorts of stains on his clothing? When I asked him to excuse me so I could get off the bus, the man tapped my shoulder and muttered, “sorry I smell ma’am…. but I don’t have no one.”

Thinking about this encounter with the homeless man reminded me of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. We know that she was a foreigner from a region known as Canaan. According to Matthew’s Gospel, she was seeking a cure for her daughter, who was thought to be possessed by a demon. The disciples’ reaction, “send her away, for she keeps crying after us,” followed by Jesus’ remark that He was only sent for the people of Israel, makes me wonder how we treat homeless people today. How often do we detach ourselves from these realities?

Similarly, in Jesus’ initial words, we can observe a clear distinction regarding whom Jesus came to save and those whom He did not.

The woman’s daughter being possessed presents Jesus and the disciples with yet another challenge. She is seen as an impure soul who is not deserving of healing and grace. She is viewed as an outsider tainted by disease and shame. It is interesting that it is only because the woman persists and challenges Jesus that He changes His attitude, finally recognizing and praising this foreign mother for her great faith. The gist of this story, in my opinion, is that by journeying with others, we discover the gifts and blessings that God brings us.

As I journey with diverse communities, trying to live out my missionary call, I am reminded of the blessings and challenges I have experienced. Encounters like the one with the homeless man on the bus serve as a constant reminder that I need to be challenged to change my perceptions, to consider when I am not being welcoming and compassionate, and ultimately, to confront my prejudices that may hinder me from seeing God and sharing God’s love with even the seemingly least of my brothers and sisters.

Additionally, I feel challenged to explore the issue of homelessness in the broad sense, looking at the structures that cause people to fall out the safety nets. While compassion is at the core of the Christian message, justice and equal opportunities for all are just as central.

Columban lay missionary Nathalie Marytsch lives and works in Britain.