“Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way.
A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ “
Luke 10:30-35, CEB
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a well-worn path for me. Those horrible “religious” Jews ran away from the problem; the good “unclean” outcast stayed to love. I can almost see my childhood’s flannel board now: the resolute Samaritan, and the man lying pale and bandaged across the back of a compliant donkey.
This story is nearly as reminiscent of Sunday school as John 3:16 and goldfish crackers.
I’m not sure whom I always identified with in the story. Maybe the Samaritan, because of course I would stop to help, right? Or perhaps I always focused on the robbed Jew, the man lying splayed on the rocky soil. Poor guy. Yeah, I’d want someone to help me too.
But I don’t think I ever once identified with the Jews that did not stop. Reading Gary Inrig’s The Parables recently, I came upon this passage:
“We should not make the mistake of thinking these are ‘bad’ men. No, not bad, but busy. For them, and too often, for me, people in need are problems, interruptions, nuisances. They intrude awkwardly on my privacy. They deflect me from my duty. They distract me from my responsibility. They keep me from my pleasures. I agree that they need help, and I hope that someone does help. But not me, not now, not here. I have a different agenda.” – p. 37
Oh. Oh, I see. To my shame, I see I am the priest that crossed to the other side, the Levite who skirts around, every time I do not stop for my neighbor.
“And who IS my neighbor?”
This time I take the part of the questioning teacher, the student of God’s law whose query prompted Jesus’ parable. “Ahem. Teacher. So we’re supposed to love God and our neighbor. But who is my neighbor?” I’m sure he felt very smug, thinking, Yes, let’s clarify. Because of course there are limits to love.
Or, to rephrase….
“Isn’t there someone I don’t have to love? This sounds pretty involved. Where can I draw the line? When do I not have to stop and take pity? When can I cut back on this love business? I mean…really, you can’t expect me to love everyone all the time, can you?”
And Jesus answers with a powerful story that we have reduced to a flannelgraph lesson promoting the moral standards of the nice Samaritan--an impotent, sanitized repackaging of a radical love:
And here seems to be the thrust of the story: When a need appears on the path, Love stops.
To the best of its ability, Love lends a hand.
“The Lord is deliberately and carefully shocking his audience. His hero is a despised Samaritan, a man who does not pass by, whatever the pillars of jewish religious society might do. However, it is not his nationality that sets him apart, but his compassion. He doesn’t see anything the other two didn’t, but he feels something they didn’t. ‘He took pity on him.’ All of the normal hostility between Jew and Samaritan is swept away as he allows what he sees to affect his emotions and actions. Strikingly the word translated here ‘pity’ is used elsewhere in the gospels ply of the Lord Jesus. He, above all others, is the model of compassion.” – The Parables, p. 38
In his book, Mr. Inrig points out, “The central question is not ‘who is my neighbor?’ but ‘what is my duty?’ Again our need is not to define ‘neighbor’ but to become the kind of person who cannot pass by on the other side…Am I concerned about calculating the limits of love or about caring for hurting people? The theologian is thinking about his responsibility; the Lord wants us to seize the opportunity. The theologian is thinking about himself; the Lord directs us to the sufferer” (p. 40-41).
In Christian communities, debates still rage. How do we help the needy? Are there people that we have a higher obligation to love and care for than others? How do we help people if they won’t better themselves? Should we give money to that homeless guy that makes minimum wage with only a scrawled cardboard sign and a grocery cart? How do we balance safety with radical love?
Certainly, wisdom should come into play. The focus of the story is not mindless care–the focus is deliberate love. If loving someone means not giving them certain things, or not enabling them to continue in a particular lifestyle, that is not less loving than binding up a bleeding man’s wounds. And, certainly, there are Biblical priorities–God, then biological and church family, and then those outside the faith.
But–at least for me–the problem is not in the exceptions or the complications.
The problem is in the application.
” This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?
Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.”
– 1 John 3:16-18, CEB –
A man who doesn’t show practical love for his family by doing his best to provide for them is betraying his faith (1 Timothy. 5:8). A Christian who does not have compassion on his fellow heirs in Christ is demonstrating a dearth of love. A man who passes by is showing that he really doesn’t understand the kind of grace that throws away convenience, propriety, reputation, comfort, and possessions just to stop and do something.
We quibble over terms.
Christ came in and acted.
We, of all people, were surely not His neighbors: More inferior to his Divinity than an amoeba is to a great blue whale. More adversarial to his kind advances than a Jew would be to a helpful leper. A cosmos, in a sense, separated us from Him–a world gone amuck, millions of sins piled like stones between the life of God and the life of man.
And us, unaware of it, ran straight into the den of robbers and gave ourselves over to the beatings of the sin we chose, until we lay bloody on the roadside. Utterly hopeless. Utterly undesirable.
But He had compassion. Desiring us! What love is this? He stopped. And, at the cost of His life, bound up our wounds.
It was certainly our sickness that he carried,
and our sufferings that he bore,
but we thought him afflicted,
struck down by God and tormented.
He was pierced because of our rebellions
and crushed because of our crimes.
He bore the punishment that made us whole;
by his wounds we are healed.
Like sheep we had all wandered away,
each going its own way,
but the Lord let fall on him all our crimes.
– Isaiah 53: 4-6 –
We can make wonderful excuses. We can say we’re too busy. We can say that we don’t owe them anything.
Jesus could have done that too.
But He went out into the highways instead.
With such a Savior, how can we hold back for one more minute? Today, my neighbor is the person in front of me–my roommate, my boss at the office, my brother, the cashier at Wal-Mart, the lady walking her dachshund down the neighborhood sidewalk.
How can I not love them? How can I just pass by?
“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
– Augustine –