We come to one of Jesus’ most famous parables, the good Samaritan. So familiar is the story, even non-Christians are likely to know this tale. Yet familiarity can also make it easy to lose sight of the message.
Those who heard Jesus tell this story expected bad behavior from the Samaritan. Instead he is turns out to be the hero. Jesus is trying to stop the standard responses of listeners and shock them into a new realization. He could have simply said, “The greatest commandments are these: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And his listeners would have responded, Great. I’m good. Love God- check. Love other people – yes,…most of the time.
But Jesus’ twist presenting exemplary behavior from the least likely place, the Samaritan, tells us what the Great Commandments mean. And we see the size of the task God gives us.
Jesus is saying love is action, not emotion. We show our love by what we do for those who need us. It’s not enough to see our fellow humans and think about how much we love them.
Look at it this way: Chloe, our daughter, is the first to graduate with a science degree. That’s fantastic science is not my cup of tea. That may be because I got hooked on history at an early age, or because of my squeamishness in science class. Of course it might have been different today.
Some years ago a company called Digital Frog International created virtual dissection software. Now students tasked with learning frog anatomy in science class no longer have smell like formaldehyde or actually use a scalpel and touch a frog. The creator of the program so disliked cutting critters as a veterinarian student that he decided to find a less distasteful way to teach anatomy and physiology.
Students in schools throughout North America are now making incisions into virtual frogs with a computer mouse. Throughout the virtual dissection, the program’s voice over explains the various organ functions while 3-D animation allows the user to add and remove cartilage and muscle to the skeleton to get a beneath-the-skin view of how the amphibian moves.
The benefits of the program are obvious, mistakes made on virtual frogs are easily corrected, no real frogs are hurt and best of all, students don’t get their hands dirty. The whole procedure remains distant and antiseptic.
What is possible in biology, however, is impossible in living as a disciple of Jesus. We cannot effectively live in community, showing love for others, friend and stranger alike, without touching the messiness of life.
And that is the hard part, is it not? Engaging with others, especially those who need us most. It is not enough to love the people who are easy to love. It’s much harder to love those who have behaved in horrible ways, to us, to others. But we must love them too. In fact, it might be the more important task.
We are tasked with going through life behaving as if we loved each other. Which is to say, we must train ourselves to love. We behave ourselves into love. The training of love for the world can start small. We don’t need to start by stopping for every stranger in need we see or giving away all our money and possessions and move into the streets to be in solidarity with the homeless.
We start where we are. We start by helping out when we don’t have to. We stop keeping track of who has done what to wrong us, or who is taking advantage of the system. Instead of keeping track of our losses, we keep track of gratitude. We share with people who have not had the lucky breaks we have had.
Then, not only will we follow the commandments, we will realize benefits for ourselves. People who help others are healthier and live longer. That was one of the conclusions of a team at the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve which evaluated scientific studies from around the country.
One study from Cornell spent thirty years following 427 women who were married and had children. Researchers found that only 36% of women who regularly volunteered had experienced a major illness, while 52% of those who never volunteered had a major illness. Other studies indicated that those who volunteered their time lived longer than those who didn’t. Frequent volunteers had a 44% reduction in early death when compared to non-volunteers.
Scientists also identified precise areas of the brain that are highly active during empathic and compassionate emotions. “these brain studies show this profound state of joy and delight that comes from giving to others,” the leader researcher noted. “It doesn’t come from any dry action- where the act is out of duty in the narrowest sense, like writing a check for a good cause. It comes from working to cultivate a generous quality – from interacting with people.” It comes from touching others in the messiness of life.
Reflecting on his internship in the slums of Calcutta with Mother Teresa, Shane Claiborne noted:
“People often ask me what Mother Teresa was like. Did she glow in the dark or have a halo? She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery- like a beautiful, wise old granny. But there is one thing I will never forget- her feet were deformed. Each morning during Mass, I would stare at her feet. I wondered if Mother Teresa had leprosy. But I wasn’t going to ask, of course.
“One day a sister asked us, “Have you noticed Mother’s feet?” We nodded, curious. She said, “Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds those. Years of wearing bad shoes have deformed her feet.”
This is the kind of love that places our neighbor’s needs above our own, without sentimentality or emotion. And it takes years of practice.
It is easy to see a Mother Teresa or the Samaritan as Christ figures, the outsider who helps, who takes charge of the victimized who have been left in the ditches of the world to bleed to death, who pays for their care with denarii or self-privation.
But we too are called to be good Samaritans to the world. If we start looking for opportunities to bind the world’s wounds, we’ll find that the world has no shortage. We show our love for God by loving each other, and the ways we show love for each other are as varied as humanity itself. There is no limit to the opportunities we have to be trained and fulfill the Great Commandments.