THE OVERLOOK

Carlos E. Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 16:19-31

 

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received

                    your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things;

                       but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”

Luke 16:25

 

Somewhere in every airport, in close proximity to Baggage Claim, is a section called “Lost Luggage.” If you ever get a chance to peer in there, you’ll see row upon row of suitcases lined up, each one bearing a special tag.

It’s astonishing to see how many pieces of lost luggage make their way into Lost Luggage. The airline industry claims that 99 and one-half percent of passengers successfully pick up their baggage, and of the one-half of one percent that remains, 95% of those bags make it to the owner’s home within 5 days. So, why all those suitcases in Lost Luggage?

Simple. A lot of people fly on airplanes! Even those tiny percentages amount to a whole lot of bags.

What I wonder about is how passengers manage to get permanently separated from their luggage in the first place. Think about it: for a bag to be truly lost — untraceable — it’s got to (1) have no luggage tag with the owner’s name on it, (2) have had the airline’s computer-printed routing tag somehow torn off, (3) end up on a different plane from the one its owner is on, and (4) contain nothing within it that gives a hint of the owner’s name. Ultimately, a bag that meets all four criteria ends up circling the carousel — maybe in a different city — until an baggage handler finally pulls it off and conveys it to Lost Luggage.

I always wonder if maybe some absent-minded travelers just walk away from their bags, forget them completely. I suppose it could happen.

Actually, I know it can happen. I’ve seen it.

I was waiting in a check-in line at Newark Airport one day, when I noticed a flurry of concern among my fellow passengers. Following the direction of their eyes, I saw a couple security guards holding back a very eager dog on a leash. They’d brought the dog over to an odd-looking, cylindrical bag, sitting right in the middle of the terminal.

The dog was sniffing the bag. Now, this was not so long after 9-11. Anxiety levels were high. “Do you think we should we be standing here, while they’re doing that?” one of my fellow passengers asked. With growing concern, we watched the little security drama unfold before us.

Finally, they pulled the dog away, and one of the officers knelt down and placed both hands on the side of the bag. (Was this some MacGyver move, to defuse the bomb? Should we all duck?) Slowly, deliberately, with intense focus on what he was doing, the officer undid a couple of latches and lifted the circular lid back on its hinges. Slowly, he reached his hands down into the bag, and pulled out…. a cylindrical fur hat, the kind commonly worn by Orthodox Jewish men.

Knowing that exploding fur hats are exceedingly rare, we all breathed a sigh of relief!

*****

Yes, there are things we simply overlook, in life. Sadly, there are people we overlook as well. They tend to be people who are somehow different from us: much older or much younger; of a lower economic status; who may dress differently than we; who may belong to a racial group other than our own.

They tend to be people we are quick to classify, in one negative way or another. Shiftless. Irresponsible. Unbalanced. Lacking in intelligence. Foreigners.

I heard a story the other day, that happened in a check-out line in an Arizona supermarket. A white man was standing behind a woman with darker skin, who was chatting away on her cell phone in a language other than English. When she was done with her call, the man said to her: “I didn’t want to say anything to you while you were on the phone, but you’re in America now. You need to speak English.”

“Excuse me?”

“If – you – want – to – speak – Mexican, go – back – to – Mexico. In – America, we – speak – English.”

“Sir,” said the woman. “I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

*****

Today’s New Testament lesson — a parable of Jesus — is about a man who’s overlooked by just about everyone. He has a name, as it happens — and, curiously, he is the only character in all of Jesus’ parables who does have a name.

His name is Lazarus. He’s not the same Lazarus who was friend to Jesus, and brother to Mary and Martha — whom Jesus raised from death. This Lazarus is a beggar.

Day after day, year in and year out, Lazarus does what beggars do. He sits in his favorite spot, beside a city street, with his hand out. Hundreds of people pass him by. Only a small number stop and drop a coin into his outstretched palm.

One of the many who pass Lazarus by, each day, is a certain rich man — who just so happens to live in the house beside Lazarus’ piece of pavement. Jesus tells us the beggar “longs to satisfy his hunger with what falls from the rich man’s table.” Presumably, the rich man just steps over Lazarus each day, without ever sending out a plate of food — or, if he does, it’s those generic food items, or the dented cans (like people buy for St. Gregory’s Pantry).

Jesus also says “the dogs would come out and lick his sores.” Oh, great. This guy’s got a skin condition. No only is he filthy and smells bad, he looks gross! Dogs are unclean animals in ancient Jewish culture. No one keeps them as pets. If a dog licks you, you’re ritually unclean. This little detail shows how desperate poor Lazarus was, just to get a few moments’ relief from his affliction.

Well, you know what happens. Lazarus dies; the rich man dies. Lazarus goes to sit beside Father Abraham in heaven. The rich man goes to the other place.

It so happens there’s a real shortage of water fountains in the other place. The rich man calls up to Abraham on high: “Please, Father Abraham, send Lazarus down here, so he can dip his finger in a little water and cool my parched tongue!

Did you notice what happens, here? Turns out, the rich man knows the beggar’s name, after all! He’s Lazarus, the miserable character who sat on his haunches outside the rich man’s gate all those years. The rich man’s sin is not a sin of omission. It’s not like he never saw Lazarus, squatting out there. He saw him, all right. He just pretended he didn’t.

We still don’t know the rich man’s name. Some later biblical interpreters gave him a name — Dives, which simply means “Rich Man” — But that’s not part of the parable. Jesus doesn’t name him. Jesus doesn’t know the rich man the way he knows Lazarus. That little detail alone ought to shake most of us — who take such pride in our personal achievements — down to our high-priced shoes!

It’s a recurring theme in Luke: that Jesus is a lot chummier with people who live on food stamps, who collect monthly disability checks, whose wardrobe is the thrift shop, who ride bikes rather than cars, than those who think they’ve got it all together.

What did the rich man do, in the parable, that was so bad? He overlooked Lazarus. Day after day, month after month, year after year, he looked right through him. He did so, even though he knew his name.

*****

Most of us — myself included — do well to take this parable of Jesus as a cautionary tale. You don’t need to be mega-rich to identify with the rich man in the story. You just need to be richer — in talent or treasure, or both — than the Lazaruses who swarm the sidewalks of our lives.  Even though we are all children of God, equally created in God’s image, those personal achievements of ours can be dangerous temptations. They can lead us to believe, in our heart of hearts, that we are somehow better than others.

Let me share a little story I ran across this week. It’s billed as a “prose poem.” And it has the ring of truth.

Gate A-4

                                               by Naomi Shihab Nye

          Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”

          Well — one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

          An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

          I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

          We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her — Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

          She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — out of her bag — and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

          And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands — had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

          And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate — once the crying of confusion stopped — seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

          This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.[1]

*****

No, not everything is lost! Not as long as we can teach ourselves not to overlook our sisters and brothers, on this earth, who are just a little different from ourselves. Not as long as we can enter into their world, strive to see things through their eyes — and do a whole lot less judging and a whole lot more listening.

So, if you take one message away from this parable, I would like it to be this: Beware of the overlook! Not the place by the roadside where you pause to snap photos of scenery; but the tendency to not even see our neighbors whom our Lord loves.

It’s the way of the faithful disciple — the way of Jesus. I invite you, today, to join him on that path!

Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.



[1]Shared by Diana Butler Bass on Facebook, September 27, 2013.