I think I almost tripped over the Messiah. Late one afternoon, right there on squalid Eighth Avenue, Manhattan.
The sighting was neither august nor extraordinary but certainly not the Messiah of Handel, or St. Pat’s, or Temple Emanuel. This Messiah was just another wretched street person propped up huddled amidst urban flotsam in futile defense against the December chill. Another garden-variety bum among bums, another annoying bit of the cityscape.
There he sat, one grimy pants leg bunched above his knee, fumbling with a bottle of saline and a roll of gauze, trying futilely to bandage a festering wound on his shin. To my ensuing guilt, I did not stop to offer aid.
I might have found the sight easier to doff off, had it not been for two mink-coated matrons on their way from a matinee. “Isn’t that just disgusting?” one prated to the next, pointing at the Messiah. Not “tragic,” nor “heartbreaking.” “Disgusting” . . . Just the way the Messiah ought to be. My mind jumped to a fragment of Talmud that has become part of my personal liturgy:
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, hungry for the Messiah to redeem the world, approached Elijah the Prophet to ask where the Messiah might be found.
“He may be found,” Elijah responded, “wounded and disfigured, wrapping and re-wrapping his soiled bandages. He sits among the diseased poor at the gates of Rome. Go see for yourself.”
So Rabbi Joshua went among the diseased poor and found the Messiah: “When, Master, will you come?”
But as the sun set, the Messiah had not come. Elijah asked, “What did he tell you?”
“He lied to me,” he answered, “for the day is over and he has not arrived.”
“You are mistaken,” Elijah said, “for the Messiah was quoting Scripture: “Today . . . if only you would listen to my voice.”
With all due respect to my colleagues in ministry, the Messiah’s advent will not be hastened, but only deterred, by theological nitpicking. Nor am I particularly sure that the Messiah is a single person bearing a particular curriculum vita. I do know that his spirit dwells not among the minks and after-theater crowd, but disfigured among the wretched poor, more likely robed in corrugated cardboard than in majesty.
And I do believe that the Messiah’s festering sores are the inevitable result of people of power and advantage heap upon the underprivileged: the willful dismantling of health care, education and social welfare, the framing of a system in which prosperity is financed by the victimization of those whose burden is already unbearable. His disgusting disfigurement is a mirror image of the callousness by which we are disfigured.
“When, Master, will you come?”
We will be set aright when we behold the festering of the powerless and react with more than disgust, when we see more in their disfigurement than eyesore. For, what is the Messiah other than the force that galvanizes us to bridge the chasm between the world as it is and the world as we know it could be? And what is the Messianic Era other than when our instinct toward the broken will be empathy, not revulsion?
We seek the Messiah in all the wrong places, in the safety of our cathedrals and ministerial prating of pious hymns, when he is right there on Eighth Avenue. He sits huddled among the diseased and hopeless. That is the place from which either the world’s damnation or its ultimate redemption will spring forth. Repeatedly he binds his wounds, hoping that someone might notice and be moved to care. And, for as base as he may seem, he knows too well the passage from Scripture upon which human destiny rises or falls: “Today . . . if only you would listen to my voice.”
The coincidence was too startling. You see a man sitting among the destitute poor, painfully re-wrapping his bandages. You dare yourself to think: Can you look at a bum and know that you have beheld the Messiah?
Go see for yourself . . .
WILUDI (Marc Wiludjanski-Wilson) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.