Maybe it’s just me, but I wonder how often we neglect to use our gifts for their intended purposes, choosing to bless ourselves and not others. I wonder how often we are poised to help the misfortunate and purposefully pass on our opportunities. I wonder how often God intentionally places the needy in our path precisely because he has faith that we will choose to be his hands—and then his faith in us is unrewarded by our ambivalence.
It is curious to me that God tells Abraham He is going down to visit Sodom to see if things are as bad as He’s heard in heaven (Gen. 18.21). This should tell us that if there are not limitations to divine omniscience, there are at least things that even God must experience to truly know. I think the times that our faith is tested are those moments of experiential knowledge; we think the trial is for us when maybe it is for Him as well.
In Luke 10.30-37, Jesus tells the tale of the Good Samaritan to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” This famous story exemplifies, even in contemporary culture, the heroic act of self-sacrifice. The term has become a badge of honor to credit those who give to strangers without expectation of return. But the story is sometimes lost in its context. The lawyer who asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” was actually trying to ask, “How much do I really have to love?” Christ’s response was prompted by the question we frequently ask, “How little must I do to be considered okay for the kingdom?”
When the story is retold in our pulpits, we often see ourselves as either the Good Samaritan, willing to help out anyone we can. Or sometimes we even envision ourselves as the Good Jew, a victim of circumstance in desperate plea for a hand-up. We either pride ourselves for those stellar moments of genuinely righteous deeds, or we bless others for practicing righteousness to us. Too quickly do we ignore the fact that Christ was telling the parable to experts in the Law (i.e. us), and it was the experts who had forgotten that the Lord desires mercy not sacrifice. With that in mind, perhaps the parable should read like this.
A certain man traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was waylaid by bandits. Him you know, but who you often miss is the real protagonist of this story. He was a Levite, traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem, and he was running late for the early evening sacrifices. It was a rough road, as everyone knew, and it would have been better to travel in a caravan for security purposes; but as we said, he was in a hurry. He had an offering to make and then get back to Jericho the next day for some unexpected auditing. Worship makes good work, was his daily mantra.
He was tabulating the temple tax in his mind when all of a sudden he heard moans echoing in the canyon. His curiosity got the better of him and he hurried up the road to find, much to his dismay, a despondent wretch lying in his path. The man was clearly hurt. Bruises were starting to rise all over his face—and there was just so much blood. If only he had taken the long way around, the Levite thought to himself. Or if only he had closed his eyes or kept his gaze toward heaven praying the whole time: then maybe he wouldn’t have seen anything. If only he had left Jericho earlier so that he would have missed the robbery. But then, if he had left early, that would have been him lying in the road. Where were the Romans when you needed them? Shouldn’t someone do something? Dear God—there was just so much blood.
Part of him knew he should help, but he had heard that thieves often beat up travelers and use them for bait to rob the unsuspecting bleeding hearts who walked by. Part of him knew he should help, but he was in such a rush after all—and those cows weren’t going to slaughter themselves. Part of him knew he should help, but he just didn’t want to. And so he walked on by, unaware that his decision would make him a cautionary tale for generations to come, unaware that his refusal to help would become a stinging indictment on the self-righteous and self-concerned for the next several thousand years, unaware that his absence meant missing out on an even greater honor than making sacrifice.
I tell this tale because I am that Levite. Last week, I came across a man who, by all appearances and smells, was homeless. He clearly was a card-carrying member of society’s Great Unwashed. Our eyes met only briefly as we passed each other, and neither of us said a word. He talked to someone else behind me for a moment, and then I heard him try to draw my attention. “Sir!” he shouted, and from the direction of his voice, I knew he could be shouting to no one else but me. But I pretended I couldn’t hear him, and I kept on walking.
If I wanted to justify myself like the lawyer (and believe me, I tried), I could say that maybe I didn’t really hear him. Maybe he was shouting to someone else I couldn’t see, and maybe he wasn’t trying to get my attention at all. Maybe I could say that at least I went back minutes later to try and repair my wrong, and since he was already gone I was off the hook for now—maybe God could try again later. Maybe I really was too busy to help. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.
Those opportunities can be the defining moments of our faith precisely because they test how we treat the least of these. We forget that those living on the margins, before they are citizens of society, are fellow creatures of God. Marred as his face and his clothes are, he is nevertheless a mirror of the divine essence. And when we deny those in need, we are denying ourselves the honor of helping our brother and the honor of taking the seat of prominence at Christ’s banquet table. But when we deny ourselves and take up the cross of self-sacrifice, we are taking part in the greater tale of God’s people.
This does not mean, in my opinion, those in need should have those needs met by the government. We similarly miss out on God’s work when we tell people to let our states and our non-profits and even our churches handle compassion. To one degree or another, these institutions are necessary to perform charity, and they should be utilized when necessary. But Christ has called you and me, not the deacon of benevolence. He has asked us to be deacons (lit. servants), not the state.
When Christ divides the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25.31-46), he is not dividing those who know the truth from those who don’t. He is not separating the Christian and the pagan. He is separating the religious Christian from the devoted disciple. The holy criteria is not how well we knew the Law of Scripture but how well we applied the Law of Love. If we want fellowship with Him, in other words, we need to seek out fellowship with others—especially the sick, the prisoner, the hurting, the dying. Our religion means little if we do not use it to help bring the irreligious into our fold.
So what is Christ’s response to my Levitical attitude? Does God take my good deeds and my bad and weigh them in the aggregate? Does he look at my thoughtless (dare I say wicked) act and measure it to all the other thoughtful (can I claim holy) acts I’ve done? Truth be told, I don’t know that I really want him to. Does he instead look at my “good intentions,” knowing I might have wanted to help that man at another time? I don’t want to be a legalist dispensing God’s justice, but I also don’t want to ignore the reality that my Christianity is judged on my actions as much, if not more, than my intentions.
There are times when we are too busy to help; and then there are times when we use our busyness as an excuse for selfishness. There are times when we can’t stop by the side of the road, be it obligation or safety; and then there are times when safety becomes a convenience. There are times when we are genuinely afraid; and then there are times when we allow fear to paralyze our faith.
But maybe it’s just me.