COMMENTARY: Jesus and the Atlanta airport

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant, managing large-scale database implementations. He lives in Durham, N.C.)

UNDATED _ I wonder if Jesus had to go through Atlanta.

Was there a route, say, from Genessaret to Tyre and Sidon that avoided the nation’s second busiest airport? Or did he, too, have to wait an hour even to take off for Atlanta, circle for another hour in a holding pattern over Atlanta, and arrive two hours late _ all of this on the dreaded Boeing 757, a flying torture device?

Did he change terminals, dash to another gate, discover that the next Delta flight is way behind schedule, then pay $5.08 for an airport hot dog? Did he reach home nine hours after starting, or roughly the amount of time it would have taken to drive?

No, Jesus was a man on foot. He walked from Genessaret to Tyre and Sidon _ a mode of transportation that, tonight at least, looks inviting. His journey wasn’t like mine.

He, too, ran into crowds, but they were waiting specifically for him: to learn, to receive healing, to taunt, to deride. The crowds I encounter are anonymous, a sea of strangers who happen to be passing through a hub that once seemed an efficient idea, but now seems a nightmare.

The crowds stirred compassion in Jesus. He took time to teach and heal them. In my dash from terminal A to B, people don’t have faces, just moving mass, whose next change of direction I must anticipate so that I can keep moving and not collide.

Jesus endured the loneliness of one who is always giving. Modern travelers endure the loneliness of anonymity. His response to loneliness was prayer to the Father, who also could understand the agony of isolation. Our antidote is gear: cell phones, computers, portable CD players, books, magazines, work files.

I could carry these comparisons farther. But my point is that our lives are quite different from that of Jesus. Yes, it’s possible to put those differences aside and say we’re still talking about human nature, sin, a need for healing and God’s compassion. But the context is different, the visuals are different, the senses of time, movement, place, belonging and purpose are all different.

That doesn’t make the Jesus story any less relevant. It does mean we can’t read Matthew 15:21, for example _”Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon”_ and simply nod and continue on. The next details will be just as baffling. What is a”Canaanite woman”? Why does she run and shout? What does it mean for her to call Jesus”Lord, Son of David”?

These aren’t academic questions, which send us scurrying to our Bible dictionaries and study guides. Even when we decipher the lingo, we’re left with massive differences, and those differences tend to push us away from God and make the salvation drama seem quaint, like dressing up a young girl at Christmastime and dubbing her”Virgin Mary”for a skit.

It means something that Jesus walked to Tyre and Sidon. It means something that tonight I take an utterly frustrating journey through Atlanta. I can’t dress up one and call it the other. The meaning of our respective dramas doesn’t lie in finding glib similarities.

For me, tonight, in this airport, the meaning lies in the weariness of modern travel, the anonymity, the rushing to get nowhere, the commercialization of everything, the negative thinking that follows such a trip, the difficulty in finding anyone who wants to hear that negativity.

The meaning lies in the eternally disturbing fact that we now play both roles. We are the crowds who wait eagerly to see Jesus walk by, because our lives need healing. We are the ones walking by, the ones given the power to heal, to take one another’s burdens.

We are wedged into airplane seats designed by cost accountants. Next to us are people who also left behind tearful loved ones. We have been given to each other. Like Jesus long before us, we must decide every step, every turn of the jet engine, whether to notice the person next door, or hope they’ll notice us, or just cruise through the sky in silence.


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