What Do You Do with a Bum in the Foyer?
Updated: Apr 29
The hell if I know. Let's start here:
The Hindu prayer goes like this: “Lead me from the unreal to the real.” The story of Lazarus is a step-by-step journey from the unreal to the real.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him,
‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’...[Then] Jesus cried
with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet
bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them,
‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
--Gospel of John
This is strange when you stop and think about it. The story begins with sickness and death. These are pretty real to us. So the story of Lazarus doesn’t appear to begin with the unreal at all. It appears to begin with those things that are so real to us: Sickness. Death. And never more so than right now.
And the story ends with Lazarus, four days gone to rotting, crawling out of a tomb alive.
It ends with Jesus telling Lazarus’ friends and family--his community--to unwrap and free a living mummy. That's what seems unreal, not death and sickness, which we know all know too much about.
What they would find beneath those ointment-soaked, grave-musty winding strips? What would Lazarus look like? Smell like? Would he be only merely not dead? That is not at all same thing as being alive.
It was for the community to solve this problem, not flee from it. It was nothing the community had have ever been asked to do before. About the way it is right now.
*** *** ***
Long ago, I lived in New York in a pretty little brownstone on the Upper East Side. My room-mate and I scrimped to afford our one-bedroom place because the neighborhood was safe and convenient to our jobs. One morning, leaving for work, we pushed open the hallway door into the foyer. But the door stopped, half opened.
There was a woman’s body lying on the tiled floor.
A body, I thought. There is a dead woman in our foyer.
Only--as I was thinking that, the woman began to slowly rise, disoriented. Off her meds, maybe hungover? She muttered unintelligibly and left the foyer right as we did, too.
On the train to work Diana and I reasoned that maybe this homeless woman had camped out in the foyer of our building for the same reason we had chosen to move to that neighborhood: because the upper East Side was safe; maybe this lone, homeless woman’s reasoning had been the same as ours.
That evening, our upstairs neighbor came to see us. For a tiny woman she carried a lot of venom with her. In fact, she was fuming.
“Did you see that there was a bum, a bum in our foyer this morning?” she demanded.
Yes, we said, we did.
Well, she was going to call our landlord and she was going to make sure that he knew about it and she was going to make sure that there was a lock on the outside door as well as the inside door, no matter how many keys it meant we had to carry! She didn’t want any more bums in our building!
This is not a feel-good story. The real problem of homelessness wasn’t solved by getting our landlord to put locks on all the doors. And without the voices of the community speaking together--and with compassion--that problem wouldn’t and won't be solved.
This is a true fact: you really can’t lock out the world.
* * * * *
The raising of Lazarus is not a feel-good story. It is a story of faith and fear and risk, beginning in sickness and distance and death.
And it ends with a blend of confusion and opportunity as Jesus tells the community that in order for Lazarus to really be alive, they have to participate.
“Unbind him and let him go free.” Jesus says.
Whatever was going to happen next depended entirely on what the community decided to do next. They could unbind him. Or they could walk away.
It depends on--and with--the community.