The Jesus of the Gospels is amazing in his power to observe people and to understand human character.
Consider the way the Pharisees and Sadducees continually try to trip him up, asking questions conceived to put him on the wrong side of religious authority. Jesus’ answers are always clever yet truthful. He so often stymies these self-conceived religious experts, turning the table on their questions and revealing their lack of human compassion and their obsession with rules.
He was a brilliant man, but also, of course, a man of shrewd insights into the motivations of others. Jesus could take the measure of a man — or a woman — quickly. He knew human nature.
It’s amazing how well the Gospel writers, telling his story so many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, are able to reveal this aspect of his character.
Do we appreciate Jesus’ observant powers, especially the attention he pays to the poor?
Recently, a daily liturgical reading focused on the woman who put two coins in the temple treasury. It had been a busy day for Jesus. He was in the temple, involved in the usual back and forth with his adversaries, who were peppering him with questions, about a tribute to Caesar, about the resurrection of the dead, baiting him with what they considered trick questions, bent on catching him in error.
It must have been stimulating yet exhausting for Jesus. Later, sitting with his disciples, he notices the woman, a widow, who places her coins in the treasury. Surely, she would have been amazed to know someone was observing her so thoughtfully.
Jesus points out to his disciples that “she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood” while others far wealthier gave more, but money they could easily spare.
Jesus’ observation is, let’s face it, so upside down from the way our world views giving. This year, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was lauded for giving the largest single charitable donation of 2013. Others, like Bill Gates and many other billionaires whom he and Warren Buffett have inspired, all receive ample attention for their charity.
I’m grateful that they are putting some of their wealth to work.
But many of the world’s wealthy donors continue to live in luxury and prestige. Meanwhile, there are still people, unobserved and unheralded, who are noticed by Jesus alone for “offering their whole livelihood.”
When you get the annual report from your alma mater, who’s listed first in the brochure? The wealthy person who gave the most, of course, not the woman who gave from “her whole livelihood.”
Jesus always noticed the poor. He heard the blind man calling him from the side of the road even when others tried to shush him. He felt the woman who touched his garment in the hopes she would be healed, even when the crowd pressed all around him. He focused on the woman about to be stoned, not her multitude of accusers.
As Pope Francis teaches us, Jesus is interested in the poor and in mercy. He had to contend with those obsessed by rules and regulations, but his interest was first in real people and their suffering. “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” he famously tells his interlocutors in Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus is asking us to view others, especially the poor, as he did and not as the world does. He’s asking us to be countercultural Christians, to be observant as he was of the unnoticed hero, the quiet sufferer, the unnoted faithful, and to model our lives after them.