Then Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
—The Gospel according to Luke
Have you seen that bedraggled man outside of town with the sign: “HELP ME”? I don’t know about you, but that guy bugs me!
That guy bugs me, and Jesus bugs me, too. Jesus bugs me, this I know… (Could be a new song there!)
Jesus bugs me, this I know, for the Bible tells me a story he told about a priest and Levite who saw a helpless man along the road, and they—to their everlasting shame—passed by on the other side.
When I see that bedraggled man, I just keep rolling by, cursing Jesus under my breath for his annoying “Good Samaritan” parable. If you’re not careful, you’ll see bedraggled people everywhere!
Forty some years ago, when I was a college student, a group of us were strolling through Chicago’s Union Station licking big ice cream cones. Suddenly, Mark tossed his cone into a trashcan. The rest of us stopped in our tracks. We turned to Mark and asked, What was wrong with that cone?
“Nothing. Nothing, really, he said. It’s just that… well, it’s just that we passed a homeless man sitting on rags back there, and I couldn’t keep eating ice cream knowing that guy had nothing to eat.”
(Tossing away your ice cream cone will feed the hungry?! Like, really?!)
My friend Mark went on to be a Rhodes scholar, an author of a dozen books, and a distinguished professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. To this day I can’t eat an ice cream cone without thinking of that homeless guy in Union Station and my friend Mark.
Mark bugs me.
I know that guy with the HELP ME sign outside of town hasn’t been beaten, mugged, and robbed like the victim in the Good Samaritan story. But I know enough about the inhumanity of our social and economic systems to know that guy may, just may, be a victim like all those hungry children in Green County, Tennessee, described in The Washington Post this past summer. Who will feed those children and millions like them now that Big Ag-Business got its government subsidy and food stamp recipients got pushed aside?
You see, knowing about those hungry children in Tennessee and knowing about HIV-stricken children in Africa and knowing about bereaved families in Sandy Hook and war-ravaged Afghans; and knowing about terrified illegal immigrants and persecuted LGBT youth and profiled young African American men; and knowing about the jobless in this country and the hundred or so homeless children in Jefferson County; and knowing about threatened species, wetlands, rivers, farmlands, and forests; knowing all of that and so much more—all of it bugs me!
Sometimes I wish I didn’t know so much. Sometimes I wish I’d never heard of Jesus and his goody-two-shoes Samaritan.
That Good Samaritan story bugs me, even though I’m not a “priest” or a “Levite.” It bugs me because I know what Jesus means by “priest” and “Levite.”
You know and I know he means people who are well-off, comfortable, powerful, and influential. He means people who know the right thing to do, who could do the right thing but don’t. He means people who pass by hurting human beings because they don’t want to get their hands dirty. Or because they just don’t see. Or maybe they pass by because they are on their way to discuss the problem of inhumanity.
I get it. I get that I’m one of those who walk by on the other side, and I’m not happy about it. But I have some questions for Jesus that the lawyer in the story didn’t ask: What is love? What is the right thing to do and how can we be sure?
I don’t know about you, but “Who is my neighbor?” is not my question. I know that answer. I get that “neighbor” isn’t about location or race or nationality. I get that. Neighbor is an attitude. Neighbor is a verb not a noun. It’s being neighborly to any and all.
We are one family—brothers and sisters all. I get that! And because of television and the Internet, we now see bruised and wounded neighbors everywhere.
So, what’s a good, sensitive, compassionate, thinking person to do?
What’s the right thing to do when so many needs and needy people cry out and when victims may be faking it anyway and when help isn’t always helpful and when helping just creates dependency and when helping just makes me feel good and superior for being better than slobs who don’t care?
And, oh, by the way, doesn’t the Bible say, “God helps those who help themselves”? Actually, no. Quite the opposite.
You see how hard this can be if you want it to be?
I don’t have the answers. But I do have a few suggestions.
One: Keep calm, be still, and be glad. Be glad for that troubling question.
Don’t let that question die.
Two: Keep calm, be still, and be humble. Be humble because you cannot fix the world by yourself. Rushing about doing good is more devilish than holy.
Three: Keep calm, be still, and be grateful. Be grateful because countless others are working to mend the world and its wounded multitudes. All kinds of people are doing good work everywhere!
Four: Keep calm, be still, and be. Simply be there for someone in your own small world. You can’t do everything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something. And whatever you do, let it be joyful, or you won’t be doing much good for yourself or anyone else. As Mother Teresa put it: “If you want to work for world peace, go home and love your family.” It’s true: Compassion begins at home. But it hardly ever ends there.
And finally: Keep calm, be still, and know. Know your own wounds. Know your own vulnerability and need of grace. We all end up “robbed and beaten” in some “roadside ditch” in one way or another, often more than once.
It’s not ours always to be giving. At times it is ours to receive.
Which is to say: When you’re down and out, be still and watch. The night may be long but there’s a neighbor holding out a candle for you.