Early last Lent, I was asked to read a Bible story that I like and then talk about it for a bit. I picked the story of the Good Samaritan. Because I am a terrible procrastinator, I waited until the last minute, and then this is what came out. I’ll post first the story, and then my reflection on it. If religion’s not your thing, feel free to skip right past this. 😉 I’ll put the religion below the fold so you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. I hope you will, though, because I think it turned out very well, and it’s something that’s been percolating through my mind all month as a result, expanding to other areas where we try to justify ourselves, and I’ve been reexamining my motives for things. Am I making choices because they are right? Or because they help justify my preconceptions and my laziness? Like I said, I’m a procrastinator — I know all the excuses. 😉 Anyway, I do hope you’ll read it, and if you are interested in discussing further, comment. This is a very new thing for the blog, talking religion, and I’m curious to see where it will go.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan (NIV)
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Who is our neighbor?
We all know, because we hear it again and again at church and elsewhere, that it is everyone. Jesus drove home that point for the expert of the law by describing a situation where a Samaritan, a class the Jews regarded with suspicion at the best of times, was the one who acted like a neighbor to the wounded man. Clearly, there is nobody who cannot be our neighbor. Mr Rogers’ whole show revolved around that one simple truth: won’t you be my neighbor?
But somehow we still struggle with that. We hear it on the radio, on the television, on the Internet, from a lot of voices. Build walls! Deport illegal immigrants! Bar Muslim refugees! Obviously we have a hard time being neighbors to everybody.
The expert of the law knew that to receive eternal life, we must love our neighbors as ourselves. But the scripture says he wanted to justify himself, which is why he asked who our neighbors are.
We all do that. Robert Heinlein once said that “man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.” Our natural instinct is not to determine what the truth is. It’s to find support for what we’ve already decided. In the parable, a priest and a Levite both cross the street to avoid having to help the wounded man. Those aren’t bad people; they would’ve been pillars of the community. They would absolutely know the law, and since the wounded man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, the wounded man was probably a fellow Jew. So why didn’t they help him?
Why don’t we help everybody we see who seems to be in need? We are great at coming up with reasons, with justifications for our behavior.
- What if he’s faking his injuries, luring me there so he can rob me?
- What if he’s faking so he can get money, which he’ll just spend on drugs or booze?
- What if he’s not faking, but after I save him he goes on and does something horrible?
- You know, somebody beat him up, they surely had a reason, right? Nobody’d beat him just because. Right? He must be a bad person.
- And even if he didn’t, what if the person who beat him up sees me? I might get beat up too. This could be a gang thing.
- Oh hey, there are other people. Someone will help him. It’s okay. I can get going. (This justification is so common experts have a name for it: “diffusion of responsibility.” The more people who appear able to help with something, the less likely anyone will actually volunteer.)
- I’m gonna be late to my appointment anyway. I can’t stop.
- I don’t know him anyway. Not my responsibility. Surely someone will miss him and come find him.
- He’s probably too far gone. Nothing I can do for him. Best to just keep going.
- But none of these are things we use to decide what to do. They’re justifications for not doing anything, and we have all done at least some of them them. Probably all of them at one time or another. And of course it doesn’t help that sometimes they really are faking. There have been people who pretended to have a fake tire, so they could rob anyone who stopped to help. There really are people living comfortably in the suburbs pretending to be homeless so they can get handouts by the freeway. Gangs really do exist, and really can retaliate against people helping someone they’ve targeted.
But Jesus doesn’t give us any easy outs; they’re our neighbors, period, no matter what they’ve done or who their parents are or what language they speak or what religion they practice. He just tells us what we have to do to be righteous, and earn eternal life all on our own. And we fail, over and over.
Because we can’t tell which people really do need our help.
Because we keep judging to decide who to help and who not to help.
And we keep doing a really objectively terrible job at it.
Why is it so hard for us to do the right thing? To set aside our fear of being cheated or looking weak, and help someone regardless of whether we feel they really deserve it? Why wouldn’t God make us able to do it, to be more forgiving of others? And since He didn’t, why does he expect us to do so anyway?
This is something that bothered me for a long time – if God made the universe, why would he ask us to behave in a way which, although wonderful, was clearly against our instincts? It was in college that I finally realized the answer, and this is when I came to terms with my faith. It’s a crazy little secret, but I don’t think God expects us to succeed. If He did, why would He bother sending His son? We wouldn’t need him. God knows us enough to know that we’ll fail. But he asks us to do it anyway, even though he knows we’ll keep screwing it up, because He is our Father. And like any parent, He asks us to do things which are beyond our reach, because that is how our reach grows. We have to strive. We cannot reach perfection, but by continually striving for it, we do get to a better place. We reach for the stars so that we can reach the moon.
We’re all human; we’ll never stop attempting to justify ourselves or our decisions. But if we remember this story, hopefully we can be more mindful of this tendency in ourselves. We don’t get to justify ourselves by saying “I didn’t help him because he didn’t speak English,” or “I didn’t help her because it was in a shady part of town and I didn’t want to get hurt”. We’re already justified by Christ’s sacrifice. So instead we have to face the real reasons why we didn’t help. Because we were scared. Because we were angry. Because we were in a hurry or stressed out. And then we can remember the humanity of the other person, and do better the next time.