The Bag Lady

November 4, 2011

by Maria Fontaine

It’s only human to judge people and things by what our eyes see. That’s why Jesus had to admonish us to “judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”[1] In other words, Jesus is telling us not to judge things by the way they look on the surface or by what our eyes see or by what our ears hear, but to instead judge or make our decisions by discerning what is really right according to true standards. However, we can only do that if we are in tune and in line with the one who is the source of righteous judgment—God, the righteous judge. In order to be in tune, we have to seek His help and His perspective.

I know that so often I fail to judge righteous judgment when I fail to look to Him and His Word for His perspective and the way He sees things. Sometimes I’m brought face to face with my own shortcomings as a result of hearing how someone else fails or succeeds in this. If they fail, I see the sadness of it and I’m convicted to do better. If they succeed, I see how far I have to go and I’m also convicted to do better.

I heard a story that made me evaluate my own modus operandi in this arena. Tony Campolo told about an experience a friend of his had, and how it motivated her to see people differently.

At Christmas this friend would go to Nordstrom—a prestigious and expensive U.S. department store. She didn’t spend much there, but she enjoyed looking, as most women do. She loved the Christmas decorations and music and dreaming!

She was looking at some of the finest—and most expensive—dresses in the store, when she noticed a poor woman get out of the elevator. Her clothes were dirty, her stockings rolled down to her ankles. She held a gym bag in her hand. It was obvious that this bag lady was out of place and that she would not be able to buy anything.[2] Most of the dresses were in the thousand dollar price range, and this woman seemed in no way like the kind of person who would have that kind of money.

Tony’s friend expected a security guard to arrive at any moment and usher the bag lady out of the store, but instead of a security guard a stately saleswoman came over to her and asked, “May I help you, madam?”

The bag lady said, “Yeah, I want to buy a dress.”

“What kind of dress?” the saleswoman asked in a polite and dignified way.

“A party dress.”

“You’ve come to the right place. Follow me. I think we have some of the finest party dresses available.”

The saleswoman spent more than ten minutes matching dresses with the woman’s eye color and helping her ascertain which dress would go best with her complexion and preferred taste. After selecting three dresses that they together decided would be good choices, she took the woman into the dressing room.

Tony’s friend, watching this exchange in amazement, hurried into the dressing room also and entered the adjoining booth, pressing her ear to the wall so she could hear what was going on.

After about ten minutes of trying on the dresses with the saleswoman’s help, the bag woman said abruptly, “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to buy a dress today.”

“That’s all right,” the saleswoman said gently, “but here’s my card. Should you come back to Nordstrom department store, I do hope that you will ask for me. I would consider it a privilege to wait on you again.”[3]

Campolo points out what a beautiful illustration this is of how Jesus might respond if He were a salesman in Nordstrom. I heartily agree. But the question for me was, How would I have done had I been that saleswoman? How well do I do in not judging by appearance or showing partiality to those who look a certain way or act a certain way? What do I base my decision on when deciding who to talk to about the Lord, or who even needs my private prayers? Do I decide that they look too rich and intimidating? Or do they look too poor or unlikely to be good discipleship material? Or do they look too stern or mean, or too cynical or suspicious? Or maybe they look happy and as if they don’t need anything.

I don’t know about you, but I too often slip into automatically making judgments according to these outward appearances. I so admired that saleswoman who, with the greatest of professional standards, continued to carry out her job to the best of her ability, not letting the appearance of the customer influence her behavior.

It made me think: If people in their secular careers can display that kind of professionalism and kindness toward others, how much more should we be motivated to do so? Jesus loves every one of us even at our worst, and in our most “uncomely” state. He reaches out and speaks in love to everyone’s heart. We can’t put Him in a box and presume to know whose life He is working in at that moment when deciding whether or not we should interact with a person or tell them about His love. Someone once said, “Spiritual maturity shouldn’t be measured by how much we know, but by who we love.”[4]

That bag woman deserved the same respect as any human being. She was made in the image of God as much as any person. Just because someone isn’t acting or looking the way we think they should doesn’t mean they’re not of great value in the Lord’s eyes. Consider the self-righteous, angry, hate-filled Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus.

I was also struck by the fact that the saleswoman could have fulfilled her professional duties with genuine courtesy and concern well enough without the last little invitation for the woman to come and see her next time. She was leaving the door open for future interaction.

Jesus wants us to have that same attitude when it comes to how we view others. We should never write somebody off just because they don’t seem receptive today. Even if they don’t act “needy,” even if they don’t seem interested, everybody needs Jesus. Everyone has potential. Sometimes it’s just a matter of time.

[1] John 7:24.

[2] Bag lady: A homeless woman who carries around with her all her belongings, usually in shopping bags.

[3] From Let Me Tell You A Story, by Tony Campolo (Thomas Nelson, 2000), adapted by Maria Fontaine.

[4] Gregg Surratt.