The following is an adaptation of a homily delivered in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at The General Theological Seminary on February 15, 2016, and it appeared in the The Episcopal New Yorker Spring 2016 issue, which was named the “Jesus Issue.”
Meeting Jesus at Grand Central
Deborah A. Lee
Whenever I read the story of Joseph’s dreams of greatness and his brothers’ response, I wish I could just sidle up to one of the jealous brothers, tap him on the shoulder and say, “Bro, you are SO gonna eat crow!” I want to tell him that Joseph’s dreams will come true; that the brothers will be proved wrong.
Of course, we all know how the story ends: how God, through Joseph, keeps the family from starvation, because Joseph eventually gets to belong to Pharaoh’s “in crowd.” To his brothers then, though, Joseph was undesirable, unwelcome, and as unsavory as crow. When he joined them at the age of seventeen to become a shepherd, they looked at him—their father’s golden child—with suspicion and distrust.
This strained relationship came to a climax when he began to tell about his dreams; for these, by their very nature, affirmed his brothers’ fears that he aspired to rule over them. Back then, Pharaoh’s “in crowd” was years off, and his brothers couldn’t imagine this so-called “favorite son” ever having anything of value to offer them. Their jealousy and hatred blinded them, and they believed, of course, that it was they who were wiser and more deserving—not this callow 17-year-old!
When God speaks God’s truth, we can all, like those brothers, be too quick to dismiss what we hear, thinking that we know better—particularly when that truth comes to us in the words of those at the margins. Who, after all, are they to tell us something valuable?
I learned this lesson myself one evening during rush hour after work. While waiting for my train at Grand Central Terminal, I saw out of the corner of my eye a figure moving toward me—an unusual event in the huge station’s zigzagging rush-hour swarm of people. As the figure came more directly into my line of sight, I saw that it was an older woman, a little bent over, wearing a shabby and dingy dress. This woman looked up at me and asked, plaintively, “Please, would you be able to provide something for me to eat?”
Chapter 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict reads “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’” I was feeling less than hospitable that evening, but since we were standing in the downstairs food court, I glibly gestured to her and said, “Sure. Order whatever you want.” I wanted to keep the interaction to a minimum. At this, she turned back to me, looked into my eyes, and softly asked, “Are you rich?”
No one had ever asked me that before. Her tone wasn’t accusatory or condemning, but she woke me up. I stammered “No!—I mean…!” She woke me up because, of course, to her I was rich—I was well dressed and had money to buy whatever food I wanted, whenever I wanted. But most of all, she woke me up because, in that split second, I recognized that it was not just this woman who had asked me this question—it was Jesus himself.
The Jesus of the marginalized had shown up to teach me something I needed to know. This woman, a person on the margins, had been given the power to reorient me profoundly. She took me from surface to depth in a fraction of a second. This woman, who I wished to ignore, brought me face-to-face with my relationship with God in a way I couldn’t ignore, and made me ponder the true richness that I actually possessed in Christ, but had been squandering through indifference, pride, and self-reliance. “Look at your life! Look at your treasure! See yourself! See Me!” Christ was saying. Without knowing it, this woman had completely unmasked me with the deeper spiritual implications of her question.
After I regained my composure, I bought the food she wanted, knowing that we both had been nourished.