More Than a ‘Honey-Do’

More Than a “Honey-Do”

Grace and Middle Valley United Methodist Churches

July 11, 2010

Luke 10: 25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He 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.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Just a few years ago, an astonishing thing happened in New York City. A construction worker named Wesley Autrey was standing on a subway platform with his two young daughters waiting on a train. Suddenly another man on the platform, apparently suffering from a seizure, stumbled and fell off the platform down onto the subway tracks. Just at that moment the headlights of a rapidly approaching train appeared in the subway tunnel. Acting quickly, and with no thought for himself, Wesley Autrey jumped down onto the tracks to rescue the stricken man by dragging him out of the way of the train. But he immediately realized that the train was coming too fast and there wasn’t time to pull the man off the tracks. So Wesley pressed the man into the hollowed-out space between the rails and spread his own body over him to protect him as the train passed over the two of them. The train cleared Wesley by mere inches, coming close enough to leave grease marks on his knit cap. When the train came to a halt, Wesley called up to the frightened onlookers on the platform. “There are two little girls up there. Let them know their Daddy is OK.”

Immediately, and for good reason, Wesley Autrey became a national hero. People were deeply moved by his selflessness, and they marveled at his bravery. What Wesley had done was a remarkable deed of concern for another person. He had no obvious reason to help this stranger. He didn’t know the man. He had his young daughters to think about. What he did was at severe risk to his own life. But a human being was in desperate need, and Wesley saw it and, moved with compassion, did what he could to save him. “The Subway Superman”-that’s what the press called him, the “Harlem Hero.” But the headline in one newspaper described Wesley Autrey in biblical terms. It read, “Good Samaritan Saves Man on Subway Tracks.”[1]

Wesley Autrey was indeed a Good Samaritan, and many of us, when we heard his story, wondered, “If I had been the one on the subway platform that day, what would I have done? Would I have been as courageous as Wesley? Would I have had what it takes to jump down on those tracks, with a train bearing down, to help that man? In other words, would I have been a ‘Good Samaritan’ that day?”

We know the parable of the Good Samaritan quite well. In fact, as the news article suggests, our entire culture is at least familiar with the idea of the “Good Samaritan.” We even have “Good Samaritan” laws that protect people who offer help to someone who has been injured in something like a car wreck or other type of accident. We are more than familiar with the command to “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. We know the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus’ response is engrained in our memories; the story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, beaten by robbers and left for dead, passed by a priest and a Levite before receiving help from a Samaritan. But the question is, do we really know the parable of the Good Samaritan? Or do we just see this parable as an example of how we should be willing to help people who are different from us? I think that if we look very closely at the parable of the Good Samaritan, we will see that Jesus doesn’t quite answer the lawyer’s question. The story that Jesus tells isn’t so much about whom the neighbor is, as about how to act in neighborly way; how to show love to our neighbor.

Just think about it for a minute. Wesley Autrey had been standing on the subway platform in New York at the very moment that a man nearby experienced a seizure and fell onto the tracks. As we know Wesley jumped down on to the tracks to help the man. But suppose that it had been a woman who had a stroke and fell onto the tracks near Autrey, or a child who tripped. Would Wesley Autrey have reacted any differently? I don’t think so. What made Wesley Autrey a Good Samaritan was the fact that he acted. He put himself aside in order to help someone in need; in order to save a life. That Samaritan traveling on the road to Jericho did the same thing. He saw a person in need, and he put himself aside to stop and help. Would we do the same?

About thirty years ago a famous experiment was conducted with seminary students. Researchers gathered a group of ministry students in a classroom and told them that each of them had an assignment. Their assignment was to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The thing was, the recordings were going to be done in a building on the other side of the campus, and because of a tight schedule, they needed to hurry to that building. Unbeknownst to the students, on the path to the other building the researchers had planted an actor to play the part of a man in distress, slumped in an alley, coughing and suffering. The students were going to make a presentation about the Good Samaritan. But what would happen, the researchers wondered, when they actually encountered a man in need? Would they be Good Samaritans? Well, no, as a matter of fact, they were not. Almost all of them rushed past the hurting man. One student even stepped over the man’s body as he hurried to teach about the Parable of the Good Samaritan![2]

We should not look down at these seminary students who couldn’t put the parable of the Good Samaritan into practice, because neither can we. Simply knowing in our minds what the right thing to do does not mean we can do it. If we are going to be Good Samaritans, then this will mean more than a change of mind. It will take a change of heart. And that’s what this parable is about: a change of heart. We have to move from legalistic thinking to loving action.

When the lawyer asked his question of Jesus, he was looking for something quantifiable. He wanted a checklist. Priests are my neighbors, but not Levites. Jews are my neighbors, but not Romans. A 32 year old is my neighbor, but not a 30 year old. But Jesus’ answer, the parable of the Good Samaritan, was not quantifiable; it couldn’t be fit into a nice little checklist because Jesus’ answer was all about love. And love is more than a this or that; more than a here or there; it’s more than the things we have to get done to make someone happy. And love is about so much more than who we love, it’s also about how we love. Rules and checklists only get us so far; love alone can prescribe precisely for each need and occasion. Love asks less that is irrelevant and pointless; but it asks more that is significant. It is less restraining, but more demanding; less irritating and burdensome, but more costly.

Think about it this way. A man is in the service profession. Every morning he gets up and heads to work with a smile on his face because he knows that he is going to help someone that day. When he gets to the office, he clocks in, checks his voicemail, responds to a few emails, and chats with some friends at the water cooler. Then his first client arrives, and happily the man goes about his work, assisting the client with her need, and then the next client, and the next. This goes on day after day. Until one day when, as the man is making his way to work, he sees a battered woman. He couldn’t miss her sitting there on the doorstep, bruised and crying, and in the house behind her he hears angry shouts. Everyday the man shows love of neighbor by working to alleviate the needs of his clients, but that is easy to a certain degree. It happens according to the guidelines of his company and the expectations of his job. But when that man stops to help the bruised and broken woman sitting on the doorstep, that’s when he shows true neighborly love. It’s not easy, it’s not neat and clean and regulated. Stopping to help the woman is going to make him late to work, and put him at risk of meeting the same brutal wrath the woman met at the hands of another. Yet the man has no regard for those matters. He sees someone who really needs help, and he loves enough to stop and offer help.

Love of neighbor is not calculating and restrained, as though we are merely fulfilling some Christian duty. Love of neighbor, one might say, is foolishly extravagant and lavish. The good Samaritan is not trying to do his duty. The point is that he is not aware of duty at all—anymore than we are aware of duty when we act generously toward ourselves. The Samaritan thought of himself not primarily as a Samaritan of a certain class, or even as a Samaritan at all, but as a human being. So to him the important thing was not that a Jew was in need of help, but that a human was. We can love God only because God has first loved us; and we are able to love our neighbors in the Christian sense only because we have been first loved by God.

Robert Wuthnow, a professor at Princeton University, once conducted some research about why some people are generous and compassionate, while others are not. He found out that for many compassionate people something had happened to them. Someone had acted with compassion toward them, and this experience had transformed their lives. We are here today because someone has acted with compassion in our lives; because Jesus has shown us mercy and love in the most extravagant way and our lives have been transformed as a result.

So here’s what’s at stake: it is a question of whether we will use the God-given revelation of love and grace as a way of boosting our own sense of isolated security and purity, or whether we will see it as a call and challenge to extend that love and grace to the world. No longer can we as Christians and as the church be satisfied with easy definitions of love, which allow us to watch most of the world lying half-dead in the road. We have to love our neighbors in the deepest and truest sense because Christ has first loved us. The question at the heart of the parable of the Good Samaritan is not the lawyer’s, “Who is my neighbor?” The question is who has been neighbor to you? Jesus Christ has been neighbor to you. The crucified one has been neighbor to you. Have you felt his mercy transform your life and make your own heart merciful? Then in your heart, you will know what this means, “Go and do likewise.”

[1] Newsday, January 2, 2007.

[2] Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D., “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, vol. 27, pg. 100-108.

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