Loving people can be tough. It can be uncomfortable. It can be inconvenient. It’s a lot easier to talk about theology than to love people and it can even be easier to follow a set of rules than to love people. Frankly, there are times when it is easier to avoid people than it is to love them.
That much is very clear from the story of the Good Samaritan.
What kind of excuses do you think the priest and the Levite made to justify the fact that they had chosen to hurry past on the other side of the road, leaving their brother to die?
Perhaps the priest was afraid that he might defile himself. Priests had to be careful about that sort of thing. What if the man who was lying at the side of the road was a dead Gentile? What if the priest got too close to him and rendered himself ceremonially unclean? Although it may seem strange to our 21st century sensitivities, the ceremonial code in Leviticus 21 prevented priests from involvement with the dead, unless the dead person had been a close relative.
Obviously Jesus has brought about a considerable change. He was able to step into situations of bereavement and not only avoid any kind of ceremonial defilement but also bring life to people like Lazarus. In the words of Hebrews, he even tasted death on our behalf. By dying he put death to death.
But as things stood at the time, the priest in the story would have made himself ceremonially unclean. Not that he knew that the man was dead – for he was not. But it could be that that was his excuse. How ironic if it was his religious scruples that prevented him from helping.
One of the points of tension between Jesus and his religious critics was the fact that he set aside their religious rules in order to help people in need. They frowned on him healing on the sabbath: that was too much like work. Not that rescuing a sheep from a ditch on the sabbath was work: they were prepared to do that. But when it came to Jesus and healing a man on the sabbath, it was too much for them. Their attention to religious detail put regulations before human need.
Had you met this priest later in the day and asked him why he had chosen not to get involved, you may have found that his excuse lay in his religious observance. You would have had to conclude that that was a sad use of religion.
Of course he might have been afraid. Who wouldn’t? After all, if the robbers had done this to one traveller, who was to say that they wouldn’t come back and give the priest the same medicine? Maybe it was better to get off down the road as quickly as possible. That seventeen mile stretch from Jerusalem to Jericho was a dangerous stretch of road. These robbers were ruthless and violent men. Better not to hang around.
The Levite behaved in the same way. Did he go a little closer to see what had happened? There are no prizes for that. Perhaps he too was afraid, looking anxiously over his shoulder to see if the robbers were waiting to swoop on him. Perhaps he had actually watched the priest from a distance as he had chosen to go past on the other side: if a priest felt it was right to walk on by, then it must be acceptable for the Levite too. Indeed, if he stopped to help the man, would that not make the priest look bad?
The truth is that we don’t actually know what went through the minds of these two men as they hurried along the road, leaving the robbers’ victim lying half-dead. But the fact is that these two significant religious figures chose not to be people of hope and rescue and walked on past without getting involved.
Whatever their excuses may have been, they failed to love their neighbour as themselves.
It is easy to walk on by. It is less messy. It is less risky.
How often have we been guilty of the same thing as these two men? We have seen the foreign national sitting outside the supermarket selling her magazines about homelessness. We have pretended that we didn’t see her and we have walked on by. We have seen the alcoholic on the pavement, life ruined and hopeless, and we have walked on by.
Nathan Jess is a young Northern Irish singer-songwriter. A few years ago he wrote a song about a homeless man who used to live on the streets of Belfast. His name was Cliff.
He is cold and afraid
His mind isn’t clear,
‘Cos his only friend’s found in a bottle.
He sleeps and escapes
And finds hope in a thought
That there’s more than this cold street in Belfast.
The faces he knows are so few,
As they turn in an instant
To miss his existence;
Even those that will sing
Of this Love that is real;
But for him, to this love he’s a stranger.
We have our excuses. We are in a hurry. We play the racist card: why are those people coming here to take our jobs when there aren’t enough jobs for our own people? Anyway, if I give something this time, I will have to give something every time: to anyone who asks for something. So we end up walking past.
None of this should hide the fact that charity is not a straightforward question. Is it best to give money to someone who has been drinking heavily? Better to do nothing? Or take him to a sandwich shop and buy him a sandwich.
When I was pastoring in Switzerland from time to time someone would appear in my town centre office looking for money. They weren’t usually as blunt as that. In fact the request usually came wrapped up in an elaborate story that had every appearance of being an imaginative fabrication. What do you do when a chancer is trying to pull the wool over your eyes? Do you still have to be a Good Samaritan.
The fact that we live in a global village adds a further dimension to the issue. We don’t simply have to decide what to do about the people we see on the street, or the local stories we read in the news media about people who have fallen victim to the bandits of the twenty-first century. We watch the devastation of an earthquake and tsunami on the other side of the world. We listen to aid agencies appealing for help as they battle the awful effects of drought and famine. Or the NGOs working in the misery of a giant refugee camp with people who have lost everything.
How many Good Samaritans will it take to turn these tides? Where does it all stop? What can one person do?
Perhaps this is a good place to remind ourselves of the oft-quoted starfish story. A boy was walking on a beach, picking up washed-up starfish and throwing them back to the water. One by one. But there were so many of them. The boy met a cynical older man on the beach who pointed out the size of the task. There were too many starfish. “What difference can you make,” he asked. The boy answered by picking up one more starfish and hurling it into the sea. “I certainly made a difference to that one!”
The size of the task and the scale of the need may make it seem that it is easier to walk past on the other side. Stop reading the newspapers, switch channels to something lighter. Pretend they are not your neighbours. It is still easier to avoid people than it is to love them.
Loving our neighbour turns out to be a costly business, especially when Jesus turns the lawyer’s question around so that the issue is no longer about who is (and is not) our neighbour, but who need us to be a neighbour to them.
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among robbers?
Very reluctantly the lawyer admitted the obvious: it was the Samaritan. Though he couldn’t even bring himself to mention his race: just “the one who showed mercy.”
Not the priest, nor the Levite, but the Samaritan. He was the only one of the three who was prepared to pay the price of loving his neighbour as himself.
It was a costly business.
In order to be a neighbour, he had to get beyond any racial prejudice he may have felt. This Jew was not one of his own people. There was a fair degree of hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Once, when Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem, he planned to stop in one of the Samaritan villages. As soon as the villagers knew that he was on his way to Jerusalem they wanted nothing to do with him. The Good Samaritan teaches us that love goes beyond racial prejudice.
He also had to accept a certain amount of risk. As we have already noticed, this was a dangerous stretch of road. The robbers had already struck: what if they struck again? We also tend to miss an aspect of the risk that he took. Presumably the inn was in a local village. What would the villagers think of a Samaritan arriving in their village with a badly wounded Jew? Would they have welcomed him as a hero, or would they have treated him with suspicion? How could he prove that he had not been the one to inflict the injuries?
The week I was writing this, a story emerged from China where a two year old had been run over by a van and left lying in the road until hit by a truck. Seventeen people walked past without doing anything. Eventually a female rubbish scavenger stopped and called for help.
Among the reactions, some argued that it was not necessarily a lack of compassion that caused people to walk on. There was a case, in 2006, of a man who helped a woman to the hospital after she had fallen. The woman accused him of knocking her down. The judge sided with her on the assumption that it was the person who hit her who would be likely to take her to the hospital.
While it is true that we need to act with wisdom in terms of the risks we might take to help other people, it is also true that our efforts will be limited if we are never prepared to risk stepping out of our comfort zones.
There was also financial cost. Two denarii represented two days’ wages. It might have been enough to pay for two or three weeks in the inn. He was prepared to pay more if required.
All of this was for a man whom he didn’t know. It was for a man who was not one of his own people. But it was for a man who needed someone to be his neighbour.