And Jesus answering said, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him” (Luke 10:30-33, KJV).
There is a well-known story of a softball game between Division II Central Washington and Western Oregon Universities. You may have heard about it. In the April, 2008 game, senior Sara Tucholsky, for the first time in her career, hit a home run that would have scored three runs. After failing to touch first base, however, she twisted around to go back and her right knee gave out. She collapsed on the ground and was unable to run. Because her team was not allowed to help her, and because the umpires informed the team that a pinch runner would have turned her home run into a two-run single, the opposing team decided to pick her up and carry her around the bases. It’s a great story.
And what makes it a great story? The logic of a softball game, governed by the principles of competition and motivated by each team’s goal of winning the game, was temporarily suspended to obey the logic of a higher principle: good sportsmanship. Central Washington gave up a chance to win the game, but in so doing chose the victory of human compassion.
Have you ever been in a situation where the circumstances required a suspension of the normal ways of doing things to do a greater thing?
Another well-known story is the one in the Bible called the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You may have heard about it. A man goes from Jerusalem down a steep, winding path to Jericho. Along the way, he is attacked by thieves. They rob, beat and leave him stranded to die, bleeding on the side of the road. A priest is coming down the road, sees the dying man, and passes by on the other side. A Levite, who like the priest was an important religious person, also comes upon the man, looks at him, and passes by on the other side. But then a Samaritan comes along and helps. Not only does he help, he bandages his wounds, puts him up at the inn, and promises to pay whatever it takes to ensure his care.
Now, we as readers know that we are supposed to be like the Samaritan and “Go and do likewise,” but I don’t think we often appreciate how difficult that is. You see, the priest and Levite likely had very good reasons to not help the bleeding man. First of all, there are religious barriers that would have to be overcome. Touching blood would make a priest or Levite unclean and unable to perform important rituals. Furthermore, one’s instinct for self-preservation would have to be cast aside. What if this was a trap? What if the bleeding man on the side of the road was bait to lure in an unsuspecting do-gooder to be beaten and robbed by thieves who might still be hiding in the bushes? It shouldn’t be hard to imagine what it might be like to be in the place of the passers-by, because we are in their place all the time. And oftentimes, we think to ourselves, “What will happen to me if I stop to help?”
What will happen to me if I give a dollar to the man standing at the intersection with a sign? I might be made a fool if he spends that money on cigarettes or booze. What will happen to me if I interfere in what I think might be an abusive household? I might get hurt. What will happen if I tell that coworker or church member that I think his comments or jokes are racist? People I have to see every day might dislike me. What will happen if I love my actual neighbors: strangers, immigrants, the homeless, felons, people of the other race, people of the other political party, people of another religion, people of a different sexual orientation? I might be ostracized, taken advantage of, corrupted, made unclean. My own people might cast me out. What will happen if I speak up and say that even though I share profound differences with my neighbor, differences as stark as those between a Jew and Samaritan, I cannot permit them to be dehumanized through public ridicule disguised as religious piety? I might be ridiculed too. What will happen to me?
Jesus says that in order to inherit eternal life, we must obey God’s supreme law: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27). And here’s the thing, just as the duty of sportsmanship trumps the goal of scoring the most runs, obeying God’s command to love one’s neighbor trumps the conventional goals of self-preservation and enrichment. And despite all the significant differences between the Samaritan and the religious figures in this parable, the only meaningful difference is that the Samaritan realized the question was not “what will happen to me if I stop to help?” but rather “what will happen to my neighbor if I pass him by?”
Go and do likewise.