Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Problem of Help

Luke 10:25-37
Ordinary 15
July 18, 2010
William G. Carter

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

We have heard this one before, haven’t we? This is a favorite parable for many people. The Good Samaritan is a favorite story for Vacation Bible School. Sometime in the middle of last week, I could hear somebody down the hall telling it to children. It has appeared in church school curricula, and depicted on flannel boards. Justifiably so: it is a story central to the teaching of Jesus. It instructs all who love Jesus.

This is a story that energizes mission committees, outreach projects, and Presbyterian deacons. Anybody who cares about the commandment to love our neighbors will be called and empowered by this story. In the centuries since this story was first told, Christian people have built Good Samaritan Hospitals. They have volunteered at Good Samaritan soup kitchens. They care for the infirmed at Good Samaritan nursing homes.

And it is a story with a prophetic edge. Not only does it offer a call to love our neighbors, it calls upon us to love our enemies. Jews and Samaritans were enemies; two thousand years later, they are still enemies. When Jesus told this story, he was putting his own life at risk. He was suggesting to a Bible scholar in the Jerusalem establishment that a hated heretic with questionable theology was both a neighbor and a possible good example. I’m certain that prompted somebody to sharpen iron nails, grab a few hammers, and prepare a wooden cross.

Why, just imagine if some esteemed preacher were to announce there is an Afghan terrorist hiding in a cave. We know where he is. He is hungry and wounded. Left for dead in a pool of his own blood. And the preacher says, “We must find him, feed him, bind his wounds, and tend to his needs.” Can you imagine someone saying such a frightening, terrifying, naive sort of thing? Then you can imagine how the true blue patriots of Jesus’ day would have regarded him for telling this kind of story.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a familiar story, an energizing story, and a prophetic story. We know all of that. Jesus tells this story to enlarge our world. He pushes anybody who can hear him beyond the safe and predictable. And he calls us to act for the benefit of other people, even if they hate us. The Law of God is clear: “You shall love the neighbor as yourself.” This story is a Grade A Illustration of God’s Holy Word.

You know that. I know that. But this time through the parable, I believe there is a lot more to the story. We focus on the central character, this compassionate outsider who bends down to dress the wounds of a perfect stranger. We can snicker at the pompous priest, and then the cautious Levite, as both pass by a person in great need. But here’s what I want to know: what about the victim in the ditch? As Jesus tells it, the story is really about him. In case you forgot, here’s how the parable begins: “There was a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead. A priest saw him and passed by. A Levite saw him and passed by. A Samaritan saw him and stopped to help...” The man must have really been out of it - - because he allowed somebody to help him.

Do you know what I’m talking about? There are a lot of people who need help, but they refuse it. Money may be tight, but they are too proud to ask for assistance, much less look for an extra job. There might be trouble at home, but they dress up for church. The teenage daughter may have skipped out of the house, but her name is never spoken around friends. A diagnosis comes back after a dark stain appears on the CAT scan, but a good front is presented with a lot of positive attitude.

It’s enough for some people to create a new Bible verse: “God helps those who help themselves.” Those words never actually appear in the Bible, but for some people, especially self-reliant American people, that is their Gospel. Their motto goes like this: “Don’t need any help. I can do it myself.”

Remember the old skit? I think it was on that ancient comedy show “Laugh-In.” A Boy Scout offers to help an old lady cross the street. He takes her elbow, and she hauls off and smacks him. She had no intention of crossing the street.

Really now, what is best for another person? Do we presume to know?

I can tell you a lot of stories of how I attempted to help somebody and it turned out badly. My very first church, I was working part-time at an urban church in New Jersey. Between the two worship services, a young man appeared in my door. He told me a down-and-out story. I gave him twenty bucks, partly to help him, mostly to ease my conscience. I was thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Later my supervisor asked if I had noticed the runny nose, the red eyes, the signs of addiction. It never occurred to me: I was just trying to be a Christian.

The custodian in my last church woke up a homeless couple sleeping on the steps. He wanted to have them arrested, so I said, “Leave them with me.” After he left, I pulled some food out of my own kitchen cupboard: Kraft macaroni and cheese, canned fruit, a half-gallon of milk. The woman said, “Don’t you get it? We’re homeless.” Meanwhile her companion was looking around the house to see what he might see. I offered to take them to a shelter and they refused to go. “Been there, done that” was the reply. So what do you do?

One of the church’s elders convinced the session to free up $500 from the Memorial Fund as first month’s rent on a small apartment. He stood up on Sunday and announced the need for a bed and basic furniture. The congregation came through. He got them settled, got them jobs, brought them to Sunday worship, took them to their jobs. And then one day, they disappeared without a trace.

Over the years, I have offered teenage offenders a chance to work out their public service hours, only to have some of them skip out before they were done, and then blame me when I wouldn’t lie for them to the officials. I have been included in drug and alcohol interventions, a few of which exploded before my eyes. I have married off pregnant couples, hoping that might provide some stability in their lives; not always the case. I have offered a listening ear to people whose mental and emotional diagnoses were way beyond my puny capacity to offer much assistance. I have painted the homes of people whose lives were devastated by poverty, only to discover another work team was dispatched the next year to the same home to do the same work.

Have you ever tried to help somebody and then wondered if it did any good? It is complicated to care for other people. Either their lives are such a mess – or our lives are such a mess – that it feels like meddling and muddling, all at the same time. (Am I the only one here who feels this?)

Remember our Bible story? Did you ever wonder what happened the next day? Perhaps the victim woke up, realized where he was, and trashed the hotel room. Or the innkeeper ran the American Express card that the Samaritan had left and discovered it was stolen.

Or maybe it turned out well, and the wounded man healed, and the Good Samaritan returned and they became friends. They caught a glimpse of what God intends for all humanity. So they decided to head back up to Jerusalem and spread the good news. As they made their way back up the road, whistling “Kum Ba Yah,” suddenly the same robbers jumped out and beat up both of them.

I don’t want to be cynical. I simply want to say how difficult it is to help somebody. To actually help somebody. I have seen good-hearted Presbyterians donate warm cashmere sweaters for migrant workers. I have noticed an occasional dented can of creamed corn cast off and placed on the food pantry table. To help somebody – to really help somebody – is to take them seriously. To love them just as much as we love ourselves – and for any self-centered people among us, that would be considerable.

Garret Keizer is a high school English teacher and a part-time Episcopalian lay minister. He writes about this Bible story, and says:

Jesus is hardly ever seen doing the three helpful things we are most often called upon to do. He never donates money, gives advice (in the specific sense of “Here’s what you ought to do”), or offers support (in the uncritical sense of “Everything you’re doing is perfectly fine”). We see him reaching out to those at the margins of society to remind them that they too have a place in the kingdom of God, but we never see him sacrificing his time or his agenda on the altar of another person’s loneliness. Nor do we see him investing much energy in helping people to get along, as that is generally understood. “Master, speak to my brother that he will divide the inheritance with me.” To which Jesus replies, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” adding a few disparaging words on covetousness for good measure. Surely the most underrate answer to the currently popular question “What would Jesus do?” is “Nothing.” (Help: The Original Human Dilemma)

What Jesus does do, however, is to tell this story. This familiar, energizing, prophetic – and troubling – story. Jesus pushes us to expand our view of the neighborhood. We don’t live in a suburb. We live on a planet. Every single person has a point of need, a point at which they must be taken seriously. And I mean, every single one of us has some great need. What we should pray for are the eyes to see the needs in others, and the needs in ourselves.

Some years ago, on our church’s first mission trip to Haiti, our team was returning through the Port au Prince airport. It was a hard week of living with the people of the land, and we were working through its hypnotic effect on us. As we get into the terminal, there was a group of church kids from Colorado. All forty of them wore the same yellow t-shirts, had the same cheerful grins. These sun-tanned kids were singing Jesus songs, and it was obvious they had not gone to the same places where we had gone, or seen the same poverty we had seen. A few of the teenage girls were putting corn rows in one another’s hair. One of them said, “I never would have learned how to do this if I hadn’t come on this trip.” It was her reason for going to Haiti, I’m afraid. It was an exotic location. She was never allowed to get close enough to the neighbors to see who the neighbors were. She was never challenged to look deeply into her own broken heart.

The first step on the journey to compassion is to see who is around us, to really see them, to see them in their true joys and sorrows beneath the masks they put on. That’s what the Samaritan does. He steps over the invisible line to bind up wounds and show some care. In that move, he begins to repair the breach that separates all of us from one another.

You know that breach: walk into a room, there is somebody I don’t know, should I say hello and step over the dividing line? The lady next door is yelling at her kids again. She does that a lot. Should I step across the border of my plot of land and interrupt, possibly interfere? The worker in the next cubicle is coming late to work, leaving early, taking long lunch breaks, asking me to cover for him. Do I pause, step into his space, and ask what’s really going on?

The Bible says the Samaritan “felt it in his gut.” What did he feel? “Compassion” – literally to “suffer with.” He felt “sympathy” – literally to “share the pathos” of being human. He chose to participate in the human race, to take part in the life of his neighbors. It was not enough for him to co-exist on the same GPS coordinates. He extended himself for the benefit of somebody else. As a Samaritan in a Jewish land, he knew how it felt to be wounded. And whether the Jewish man was conscious or not, he received the help that was offered.

Listen, I know this is only a story, but it sounds like a miracle. One person offers specific help to another. Another man receives the help he is given. Today I ask you: which of these is the greater miracle?

In Norman Maclean’s story “A River Runs Through It,” Norman and his Presbyterian minister father are talking about Paul, the other son. Paul is living on the fast track to destruction, and his brother and father are worried about him. Both of them want to help, but they worry it won’t do enough good. Then Rev. Maclean says,

“You are too young to help anybody and I am too old. By help I don’t mean a courtesy like serving chokecherry jelly or giving money. Help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. So it is that we seldom can help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed.”

This, in a nutshell, is the problem of help. And it throws us back on the very words that called us to worship: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.” The church is God’s triage ward, where all of us present our broken souls to a Great Physician who alone has the power to heal us. Here is where we learn of God’s great salvage mission to the world. The God we meet in Jesus Christ is our help, if only we can receive it.

And for those who can receive, we are called to pass along whatever help we ourselves have received. All of us are neighbors, after all; neighbors of one another, neighbors of the world. This much is true.

And yet I will tell you one more truth: I have learned where the kingdom of God is located. The kingdom of God is wherever people accept help from their neighbors. For their neighbors are sent to them by God.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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