A reflection on Proper 10C – Luke 10:25-37
The phone rang, it was a colleague of mine, she had something she wanted to discuss with me and wondered if we could talk over lunch. A few days later while we ate our salads, she told me about Dorothy, a single mom with a young daughter, living on disability and public aide. My colleague assured me that she had visited Dorothy; that her situation was legitimate and that what she needed was some assistance until her daughter was out of high school. Up to this point my colleague was providing that assistance but now she was leaving her church and moving out of state. She wondered, since the woman lived near my church, if we could help? I thought perhaps my church might want to help. I took Dorothy’s situation to our leadership team and we talked about it. In the end we agreed to help with monthly groceries and PACE bus passes. We held food drives and had people bring in chicken and hamburger, cereal and cheese, vegetables and fruit. Sometimes, when church members were really busy we collected a fund and I had PeaPod deliver her groceries. I ordered PACE bus passes and they were mailed to her house. We collected food for her Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners. We gave her daughter clothing and school supplies. I even bought her daughter’s senior year high school year book. We probably helped Dorothy and her daughter for five years, maybe more. I liked Dorothy and her daughter and I was grateful we could help fill in the gaps between what she received on disability and what she needed to live on.
It wasn’t all great though. At times it was tiring work. There were days when Dorothy had needs beyond what we could give her. On those occasions she’d call me repeatedly at all hours wondering if I could help with one more thing. I had to lay down very clear limits with her. And whenever I sent a parishioner to her house I warned them: she will ask you for more. She will want a ride someplace or she will want money or she will want something. Her needs were endless. They were real needs, but they never ended. I told parishioners to just give her whatever it was they were delivering and tell her that this was all we could do right now. Over and over we had to place limits on what we could give her and when and how we would give it to her. That part was sad and difficult, but it was what we had to do in order to help her at all and not burn out.
Helping is a curious thing. It makes us feel good to have helped another. Helping can change lives and make the world just a little bit better. But helping can also burn us out, wear us down, and make us cynical. Sometimes the help is appreciated. Often the need for help in this world seems endless. And now today, more than ever, with the Gulf Coast oil spill, the economy that has crumbled, two wars overseas, famine and civil war in many countries around the world, children orphaned to AIDS and other disease. I could go on and on. In a world of so much disaster and tragedy it’s easy to understand why the Levite and the priest might walk on by. Maybe they had already helped too many people. Maybe they had overwhelming concerns of their own. Maybe they were cynical and burned out and tired. Maybe they were just in a hurry or didn’t want to touch someone who was beaten and dirty? Maybe they felt it wasn’t their problem.
Some people help though, not out of a desire to assist the other, but out of a need to boost their own ego. “Oh, see, aren’t I a good person, look what I’m doing for YOU. I have so much and you have so little, and I’m so great because of what I am doing.” Of course the thinking behind this can be much more subtle while at the same time being more about boosting the ego of the person helping than it is about actually caring for the other. And sometimes helping takes on a kind of condescending attitude, an attitude of “oh you poor thing, here let me help you.”
Such is the premise of the book, “How Can I Help” by Ram Dass. Some of you might remember Ram Dass from the 1971 best seller, “Remember Be Here Now”? Well in “How Can I Help” he takes a deeply spiritual and rather profound look at the nature of helping. Through telling story after story of people helping others he points to the real depth and intent of helping – that the person doing the “ helping “ is almost always the one who ends up actually being helped, changed, transformed, in ways they least expect. But even more important is the reality that helping is a mutual act – each person participates in the helping and the being helped. In other words sometimes we have to allow someone else to help us. So, in reality, helping is about building relationships of mutual care and compassion.
This is part of what Jesus is pointing us to recognize in this story from Luke about the Samaritan and the man from Jerusalem who was beaten and left for dead. If we were to have heard this story in Jesus’ day from Jesus himself we would understand that the beaten man is one of us, you or me, beaten and left on the side of the road to die. Prestigious people in our community walk by but do not stop to help. Like the priest and the Levite, these prestigious people are too important to be bothered with a simple person and their suffering. We would anticipate, though, that one of our neighbors, one of our friends would come and help. But none come and no one stops to help. No one comes, that is until this stranger walks by, this Samaritan. For us, like the man in the story, the Samaritan would be the person we most despise and are most afraid of. And Jesus’ point is -just as the beaten man needs the compassion of the Samaritan- we too need those we despise or are afraid of to have compassion on us. Likewise we are to show compassion in return. Strong words. This is not a nice little story. It’s a tough teaching.
Jesus tells us that having compassion on the stranger is how we inherit the kingdom of God.
But what is the kingdom of God? Is it some reward that we are trying to earn in the future, in the life we hope to live after this one, if we are found worthy? Again, I think Jesus points us to see the kingdom of God in a richer context, as a place that is both here now and yet still to come in the future. The kingdom of God can be manifested right now –whenever the peace of Christ and the love of God – abide in and through us. It is also a kingdom that will never be fully realized in our lives, in this world, but will reach its fulfillment in the age to come. It is a both/and kingdom.
So, it’s a both/and kingdom; and we are invited, by the grace of God, and the love of Christ, and the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit, to be a part of the kingdom coming into fruition right here and now through acts of love and compassion.
The way we help others need not be grand. It need not be something that wears us out. And, while helping some one may make us feel good about ourselves and be a motivating side perk, feeling good about ourselves can’t be the primary reason we help, not if we want to help with the compassion of Christ. We don’t help with the intent and purpose of boosting our own egos nor to find our meaning in life. We help because that is what it means to be the hands and heart of Christ in the world. In a curious way we often find that in the end we, who were supposedly doing the helping, are in fact the one helped.
Helping, showing compassion and love for others, is what we are called by God to do. We do this because it’s how we build community, it’s how we create the Body of Christ, it’s how we bring forth God’s kingdom now and in the future. It’s a profound question we are to ask ourselves, “How can I help?” And the answer is simple, look carefully around you; you’re bound to see someone in the ditch of life. And when you do, offer them a kind word, a strong hand, a loving heart. Then again, don’t be too surprised if you are the one in the ditch.