One rainy Saturday, I stared out the kitchen window as I washed dishes. Another wave of tornadoes had ravaged small towns across the nation. The news was filled with dramatic stories, and I was weary. Weary of disasters, devastation, and more tears. Weary of the conflict that will not be resolved this side of heaven.
What does the Bible require me to do about this? To love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:27). This is much easier said than done.
The legalist inside of me answers back: But how many? How many do I have to help? Who is my neighbor? And just like the lawyer who asked Jesus who exactly his neighbor was (Luke 10:29), the legalist was given a story.
A New Neighborhood
A neighbor, to a Jew living in the days of Christ, would have shared ethnic heritage, religion, defenses, land and water access, and trade. He would have been obligated by the Torah to extend debt-forgiveness, hospitality, and other cultural favors not offered to outsiders. He would have had no such obligation to Gentiles or strangers. And yet even this idea of "neighbor" is far more intimate and invasive than ours today!
What comes to your mind when you hear the word neighbor? A grumpy man who complains about kids on his lawn? Fun friends who share a meal? Partiers who block your driveway? Nameless people who move in and out?
The question "Who is my neighbor?" for us today might be something more like "Who is my family?" We know we have intimate and invasive obligations to our moms and dads, brothers and sisters, spouses, and children. Yet in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is telling us that we, too, need to extend our circle.
Shown up by Those Outside our Faith
The day I was wearied by news of natural disasters, I wanted to justify myself. Just like the religious expert in the story, I found myself saying, Haven't I helped enough already? Yet Jesus wants me to continue to see and realize my self-centeredness.
In the Good Samaritan story Jesus told the religious expert that the wounded man was abused by his enemies. The path of Jericho was even nicknamed the "path of blood." Caverns and steep drop-offs along the path made pedestrians easy targets for cruel thieves.
Yet the priests whose very office was atonement walked right on by. Were they hard-hearted? Were they compassion-fatigued like I was that rainy night by the window?
Many actors, businesses, and secular organizations are ahead of Christ-followers in the way of compassion. To be fair, I know of great compassion work being done by many Christians—but we should be the first responders because our very faith is a woven story of grace, love, and redemption.
Close the Distance
Matthew Henry describes the Samaritan (the heated enemy of the Jews) in poetic language: "When he drew out his soul, he reached forth his hand . . ." Love closes the distance with physical presence, human touch, and comforting words.
The Good Samaritan did not keep himself at a distance, but he instead bound up the Jew's wounds, using his own linen, oil, and wine. He went much further than simple courtesy by bringing him to an inn and making arrangements for his welfare with kindness rarely seen outside of actions toward friends and family.
We don't live in the culture of Jews and Samaritans, but we still have those we may keep at a safe distance, including immigrants, refugees, international students, and others. We also often consider religions that persecute Christians, countries with different foreign policies, and criminals in prison as our enemies, and we don't consider the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, the impoverished, and the sick beautiful.
A Love that Costs Is a Love that Heals
When I teach justice seminars, a baffling moment usually occurs at the end during Q&A. We have spent hours together discussing simple, practical ways to live compassionately, yet someone inevitably asks, "What simple thing can I do to make a difference?"
I was slow to catch on, but finally realized that, no matter how simple the step, change is hard. What the questioner really wants to know is, "Which one of these things can I change . . . and still be comfortable?"
The answer? Nothing.
The first step for me on my journey was to change one store I shopped at regularly. The goal was to buy less from the supply chain of sweatshops. Simple? Yes. Comfortable? No. Although this seems ridiculous in light of the atrocity of slavery, it took some getting used to before it became a habit.
But a refusal to embrace change is a refusal to embrace true, cleansing joy and utter transformation.
Isaiah 58 promises us that if we would give ourselves to taking care of the oppressed, "our wounds will quickly heal." Later we find even more promises of protection, light, guidance, joy, and inheritance.
We see an amazing thing happening here. When we love someone else, our own healing occurs. Give your life away and get more life back. Try to hold on to your life, but lose it instead (Luke 17:33).
Now Go and Do the Same
With all the programs, special events, and large organizations that exist to end massive problems like poverty and disease, we cannot rule out the power of one person (the Samaritan) helping one other person (his "neighbor").
We have the ability and freedom to:
- Increase our awareness of local and world news.
- Welcome interruptions as sacred appointments.
- Be wary of technology and entertainment distractions.
- Be educated on the signs of trafficking all around us.
- Consider our global citizenship in the products we purchase.
- Develop our passions and gifts to aid the oppressed.
Jesus offered the lawyer—and us—this convicting and inspiring conclusion to his parable of the Good Samaritan: "Now go and do the same" (Luke 10:37). How will you show mercy and compassion? Who will you nurture and serve?
In Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life, Robert Lupton challenges us, "Don't reach for your billfold; it is not close enough to your heart. Don't raise your hand to volunteer for another committee in the ecclesiastical bureaucracy; tokenism is an unfit gift. Rather, look within. What invigorates you? What causes you to wake up before dawn with a new idea spinning in your mind? What fuels your imagination, even when you are fatigued? Here is where you will find your most valued treasure. Here is where you will find a gift worthy of your Lord."
Amber Robinson is author of Mercy Rising: Simple Ways to Practice Justice and Compassion (Beacon Hill). She advocates for vulnerable children with Compassion International, helps educate others to spot signs of trafficking in their own cities, and finds peace in her organic garden.