But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ — Luke 10
I was on my way to Hawthorne, a small town in the middle of the desert in Nevada, when my car started that funny wobbling motion which got worse and worse — I had a flat. I pulled over and got out of the car. Like everyone who’s ever had a flat, even though I knew what it was and what I had to do, we all have to stand there a moment looking at it thinking, “What now?” While I was doing this, a Highway Patrol car pulled up behind me with lights flashing. My only thought was, “Great… and a ticket.” But that isn’t what happened. First off, the officer did the most disturbing thing he could possibly do… he smiled at me. He then proceeded to chat me up, and he actually changed my tire for me. I was stunned. It was a classic example of a Good Samaritan. Changing my tire really wasn't his job; he could've driven on by.
If only life gave such simple black and white choices like in the parable of the Good Samaritan: Help the injured, bleeding guy by the side of the road, or walk on by. The story of the Good Samaritan is so well known, I wonder if it sometimes loses its impact. We all know it in one form or another. Robbers beat a guy on the road going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, leaving him half dead. A priest sees him, but passes by; a Levite does the same. But the Samaritan, the one Jesus’ audience least expected to do the right thing, was moved with pity. He bandaged his wounds, and poured oil and wine on them. Olive oil was often used to heal wounds and to anoint the sick, while the wine acted as an antiseptic. He put the man on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
If we walk away from this with only the lesson we should help people if they're beaten up on the side of the road, we missed the last part of what Jesus said. He didn't say, "Go and do the exact same as the Samaritan did." He said instead, "Go and do likewise…" likewise. So how do we do that? I think it starts with our eyes... with seeing. There are so many people lying by the side of the road, unconscious, bleeding, but we don't see them.
John Watson in 1903 wrote:
“This person beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with them, to bid them be of good cheer, to let them understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate them, nor press hardly upon them...”It was later simplified to: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
Jesus had the ability to look beyond the surface and see the hard battles people were fighting inside. We know Jesus was a healer, but we don't always notice that he also addressed the underlying need of people he healed… the internal bleeding.
In Luke 5, there was a paralyzed man who couldn’t get into the house where Jesus was because of the crowd, and so his friends got up on to the roof, removed the tiles, and let him down through the hole. Jesus didn’t heal him immediately; instead he knew the first thing the man needed to hear was "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." Sounds to me like this man had internalized the message that somehow his paralysis was his own fault — that rotten theology still perpetuated today by some that says bad things only happen to bad people. That it somehow was God’s punishment for his sins. Jesus knew he needed to hear words of forgiveness and absolution.
In Luke 8 before the calming of the storm, Jesus first asked his disciples, "Where is your faith?" While the storm was still raging, and the waves were crashing up over the edge the boat threatening to sink it, it was then the disciples needed to examine their faith. And then Jesus spoke the words that calmed the storm.
Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry in John 8, there was the woman who had supposedly been caught in adultery. She needed more than to be protected from a sentence of death. She needed to be able to return to her community and live. By convicting the hearts of those who accused her, he changed her life. He gave her and many other women safety.
People are half dead from fear and loneliness or the weight of this world. It's hard to see the bruises and the bleeding and brokenness we all carry around inside. About the only way that really seems to work is if we really listen. A wise friend of mine once said, "If you listen to someone long enough, they'll tell you everything you need to know."
So how do we truly listen to another person? How do we get a glimpse of that inner battle? How do we do like Jesus did and see beneath the surface to the real need, and then, how can we help?
Dr. Ralph Nichols, who founded the International Listening Association once said, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”
How many people suffer because they feel invisible, that no one is really listening to them? No one can even see them lying by the side of the road bleeding.
One person who had been through a crisis in his life put it this way,
“When someone listens to you well, it makes you feel accepted, understood, important, valued and validated. It gives you a voice to help you find yourself again. It reminds you that you are not invisible or alone. We also don’t get to see a lot of examples of real listening because it is so rare. Although we hear with our ears, many of us don’t necessarily listen to what is being said. We don’t get the chance to listen when we are too quickly reacting, judging, providing solutions, and disagreeing, rather than being a good sounding board. But we can create by our listening a pure, non-judgmental, patient, and empathetic space where the other person gets to express and feel understood and validated. Most times folks don’t need or even want solutions, advice, or answers... They just want to be listened to. Powerful listening can provide immeasurable healing. For many people it will be the first time in their lives they actually feel like they have been heard, really understood — like what they experienced and have to say makes sense. It makes people feel important and visible again. Being understood immediately shifts perspective: From feeling invisible to feeling visible, from feeling down to feeling uplifted, from feeling contracted to feeling expanded, from feeling hopeless to hopeful.”Sometimes we think we’re helping, but we’re not. When I was a new teacher, there was this boy who had terrible handwriting. I mean, it looked like he had taken the pencil and put it between his toes to write. His desk was filled with stubs of pencils no more than an inch to an inch and a half long. As a newly trained teacher, I knew what to do. I got him a fresh pencil, and talked to him about proper posture, holding the pencil correctly, and even bringing up the tails of the last letter in cursive to provide automatic spacing for the next word. His handwriting improved for a little bit, but soon was back to the illegible scrawl he had used before. Thank goodness for parents. We had a regularly scheduled parent-teacher conference, and they told me the problem was there was a boy sitting by the pencil sharpener who always poked and teased their son, so he just wouldn’t go over there to sharpen his pencil. I moved the other boy (I think I also threatened his life), and the problem was solved. You see, I thought I was helping at first, but I really wasn’t. There’s a big difference between thinking we are helping someone and really serving them.
Rachel Naomi Remen said,
“Many times when we help we do not really serve. . . . Serving is also different from fixing. One of the pioneers of the Human Potential Movement, Abraham Maslow, said, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.' Seeing yourself as a fixer may cause you to see brokenness everywhere, to sit in judgment of life itself. When we fix others, we may not see their hidden wholeness or trust the integrity of the life in them. Fixers trust their own expertise. When we serve, we see the unborn wholeness in others; we collaborate with it and strengthen it. Others may then be able to see their wholeness for themselves for the first time.”We all feel like we want to do something to help, but often the greatest way we can help is to simply be present and to listen.
There was a little girl who arrived home late from school. Her parents were worried, and asked why she was so late. She replied that her friend had lost her doll. Her parents asked, “Oh, did you stay after to help her look for it?” “No,” the little girl replied, “I stayed to help her cry.”
Knowing I tended to be the kind of person who wanted to fix things, a very wise hospital chaplain once advised me: “Don't just do something, stand there.”
When I think about the people who really helped me in my life, it wasn't because they fixed my problems for me, but because they listened to me.
When I was eighteen and had just been kicked out of my home because I was questioning the religious tradition in which I was raised, I poured my heart out to the mom of one of my friends, Mrs. Olson. She listened to me… that’s it. At the end she helped me by not by fixing anything but simply by acknowledging the reality I faced: She said, "It’s hard to be big people."
About eleven years ago, our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, then Bishop of Nevada, listened to me explain, that despite the calling I felt to the priesthood, there were so many reasons why the Episcopal Church probably wouldn’t want me as a priest. She listened to me until I finally ran down, and then calmly said, “I can't imagine why any of those things would matter… why don’t you just tell me about your journey.”
When my dad was dying, there was no Christian priest on duty, instead it was a Buddhist Monk who helped me not with words but by sitting with me and with my family… by listening. I knew at the time he had given us a great gift, but it wasn’t until later I learned how great a gift: He had patiently sat there and listened to what we were going through, while he was still privately grieving over his own father who he had lost two weeks earlier. He never said a word about it.
It is sometimes scary and uncomfortable to remain standing in place in the presence of suffering, but if we going to see the real bleeding inside, it is what we are called to do for one another. Sometimes we’re given the opportunity to stop the bleeding and apply something soothing and disinfecting. Sometimes people need more than that, and we have to carry them… put them on our own donkey. Sometimes they even need extended care… not just a moment’s intervention, but the gift of our time.
And people need hope. When Jesus sent out the seventy in last week’s Gospel the main message was to tell folks “The Kingdom of God has come near you.” People need to hear the message that the Kingdom of God has come very near to them. People need to hear this message, a message of hope that they are not so far off the beaten track they cannot find their way back. People need to hear the message that healing is not out of their reach. In Deuteronomy, Moses said, “This commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away... not heaven or beyond the sea... but very near you... in your mouth and heart.”
This entire story of the Good Samaritan was in answer to the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus's answer wasn't that you're not religious enough — there is nothing about spirituality or prayer or religion — It's about feeling pity. It's about being willing to be expended for others.
The surprising thing is when you help that person by the side of the road, when you truly understand what they're going through, when you help staunch their own internal bleeding, you may discover that somehow that battle you fight within yourself has quieted down a bit. The ache in your heart is somewhat lessened because you yourself are no longer invisible. You have connected with another person. And although their battle may not be your own, it lifts your own burden to recognize you're not alone fighting that great internal battle. You realize they’re just like you… human… and that lifts a great burden of isolation. And you feel more alive.
And maybe… just maybe… you’ll realize eternal life isn't just something that begins after you die, it begins with our neighbors… it begins now. Eternal life begins today.