A Rwandan friend phoned this evening. We talk at length, but there are questions that are still difficult to frame. How does he do his work? How does he face each day surrounded by so much grinding poverty? How does he look straight ahead and to walk on?
I remember my first visit to Africa, Tanzania in 1998. Our driver pulled the jeep into the filling station.The car was immediately surrounded by people some trying to sell us things, some curious about who we were, some with faces against the glass in the hope of generosity.The staff member of our host agency sat and stared impassively out through the windscreen, there was no communication between us, but this was clearly what he expected of us. We had to learn not to see people; otherwise the work we had come to carry out would never be completed.
It was a painful experience, just to stare ahead, not even to acknowledge people. Spending time trying to avoid catching people’s eyes was difficult; if the eyes are the windows to the soul then the view through these windows was nightmarish.
What would Jesus have done? Perhaps it’s a crass question, but it is a valid one. If being a Christian means anything then it must mean taking the life and teachings of Jesus as a reference point for one’s own behaviour.
Jesus says some harsh and enigmatic things sometimes; there is the confrontation in the Nazareth synagogue described by Saint Luke, which prompts a response from Jesus that sounds, to my ears, almost hard-hearted
“I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” Luke 4:24-27
Did Elijah and Elisha have to learn to look straight ahead and walk on, knowing that they could do more than they what had done?
And what about all the people in Jesus’ time who didn’t receive healing, those who didn’t know what he might have been able to offer them? Jesus must have been heart-broken at the misery and suffering he saw, but he has to accept the constraints of his own humanity. He cannot force change, he cannot at a wave of his hand change the whole world, a God who acted like that would not be a God who was fully human.
If Jesus has to accept limitations, then those of us who are infinitely more limited must accept our puniness. Perhaps it’s the acceptance of our human weakness and our human inability to do all we want that are part of the pain of looking ahead and walking on.