Love is as Love Does

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Author Joyce Landorf remembers a time she was passing through a crowded airport. 

She paused at a gift shop to purchase a couple of greeting cards.  When the clerk turned to serve the next customer, Joyce realized she had neglected to put them into a sack.  “Excuse me,” she said pleasantly, addressing another employee standing behind the counter.  “I just purchased these cards and would love to have a small sack.  Could you please reach one for me?” 

“Sorry,” said the second employee, who didn’t lift a finger to help. “It’s not my shift.”

That comment quickly became a staple in the Landorf household.  Did the dog need to be fed, the dishes dried, and the trash dragged out to the curb?  Sorry, it’s not my shift

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is Jesus’ reminder that when it comes to providing love and compassion, all of us are on call. 

Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey provides rich insights concerning the background of this familiar story. 

A man goes on a walk.  He is confronted by four different parties.  The first three parties follow a pattern.  They come, they do something, and then they go.  The fourth party changes the pattern.  He comes, he does something, and then he stays.  This is how Jesus defines what it means to love someone.

The man in Jesus’ story sets out unaccompanied down the 17-mile trail from Jerusalem to Jericho, a twisting, perilous plunge of more than 3,000 feet along the central spine of Israel.  Numerous switchbacks and boulders provide excellent hiding places for muggers.  The first party the man encounters is actually a group – a cadre of robbers.  Jesus says in verse 30, “They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.”  The robbers have used this man for their own purposes.  Now they’re going to leave him to die.

Next come parties two and three.  They presumably didn’t wake up that morning thinking they would have the chance to be heroes.  Neither do we.   But when needs and opportunities suddenly appear before us, how will we respond? 

The first potential rescuer is a priest.  He represents the spiritual elite of the people of God.  Bailey suggests that the original listeners to this parable would undoubtedly assume, “A priest will know what to do in this situation.” 

When the priest sees the crumpled body, he realizes he’s going to have to answer a couple of tough questions.  For example: Who exactly is that man lying there on the ground?  In Jesus’ day it was fairly easy telling people apart.  All you had to do was engage someone in conversation to identify their particular dialect.  Or you could check out what kind of clothing they were wearing.  Those were the quick and easy ways to find out if someone was “part of our crowd.” 

But now he’s in a fix.  This victim isn’t going to self-identify.  He can’t talk and his clothes are gone.  So who is he – a good guy or a bad guy?  Jew or Gentile?  A loathsome tax collector or one of our family’s best friends from the village just over the hill? 

Furthermore, the priest is wondering if this poor fellow might actually be dead.  He can’t quite get close enough to see.  There’s a lot at stake here.  If a priest should walk within ten feet of a dead body, he has to tear his clothes.  That’s ritual law.  Then he has to forego his next priestly rotation in the temple.  “It’s too risky getting any closer,” he thinks.  “I probably should just walk on.”  He’s not willing to step across that ten-foot perimeter.  He leaves the man behind.

It is risky getting involved with other people.  It can cost us a lot of things – time and money and embarrassment – especially if we’ve guessed wrong about a situation.  But what if we can’t shake the impression that we’re being called by God to step out of our comfort zone?

The next party to enter the picture is a Levite.  So far we’ve seen the clergy walk on by.  Now we have the equivalent of a congregational lay leader.  In verse 32 Jesus says, “When he came to the place and saw him, (he) passed by on the other side.”  He comes to the place – he at least seems to get within that ten-foot circle – but he goes no farther.

Maybe he’s thinking, “This might be a trap.  How do I know this guy isn’t a decoy?  Robbers are clever, you know.  I might get hurt.  The whole thing’s a setup and I’m going to lose my wallet and look stupid.  Besides, before I take a casserole and brownies over to someone’s house, I probably should have their permission.  People don’t like others barging in.”  So the Levite leaves the man behind as well.

Here’s a certainty: There will always be a reason not to help somebody in need.  We will always hear some kind of voice that will say, “Be sensible.  It’s not your shift.  Somebody else has been assigned by God to take care of things like this.” 

The robbers hurt the man by violence.  The next two passers-by hurt the man by neglect.  Love is as love does.  And real love takes risks.

Which brings us to the Samaritan.  How powerful has this parable become in the history of the English language?  Today we hear the world “Samaritan” and think, “That would be defined as somebody who sacrificially helps a neighbor in need.”  We might think of a local Samaritan Center or Good Samaritan Hospital. 

But as Bailey points out, Jesus’ original Hebrew audience undoubtedly reacted with revulsion. 

Who were the Samaritans?  They were racial half-breeds and spiritual heretics.  They were thought to be unworthy of love and incapable of knowing God.  As a standard practice in the first century, Samaritans were publicly cursed in the synagogues, and prayers were offered up begging God not to allow them to receive the gift of eternal life.

To re-create the emotional impact of this part of the story, we might say, “A cocaine dealer came walking by,” or, “Along came a con artist convicted of cheating retired people out of their pensions.”  Or how about, “An ISIS operative approached the man who had been mugged.”  The thought that a Samaritan would or could do anything gracious was simply outrageous. 

But the Samaritan blows away expectations.  He feels compassion.  The Greek word used here is splanchnon, which means “intestines.”  He has a deep, gut-level reaction to this wounded man.

The Samaritan goes to him.  He crosses that invisible line of demarcation.  Outside the line I can always play it safe.  But when I take a step into the turbulence of somebody else’s life, who knows what I’m getting myself into for the sake of Jesus Christ? 

The Samaritan takes care of him.  He cleans and softens the man’s wounds with oil, and disinfects them with wine.  Then he does the most daring thing of all.  He gathers this man up and takes him to an inn.  He stays with him long enough to make sure he gets the help he needs. 

And what will people think when they see a despised Samaritan bringing in an unconscious man?  Bailey writes, “An American cultural equivalent would be a Plains Indian in 1875 walking into Dodge City with a scalped cowboy on his horse, checking into a room over the local saloon, and staying the night to take care of him.”  Jesus is intentionally turning the presumed bad guy into the hero. 

Do you remember what Forrest Gump’s mother always said to him?

Forrest would ask, “Mama, am I stupid?”  And she would reply, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Love is as love does.  We can preach sermons, write reflections, and dispense pearls of wisdom to everyone around us.  But love always comes down to how we actually live. 

As he wraps up his parable, Jesus turns to the expert in the law – the one who had asked, “And who is my neighbor?” – and asks his own $64,000 Question:  “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 

The expert in the law, no doubt feeling a bit sheepish, replies:  “The one who had mercy on him.”  Whereupon Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.” 

That’s what he says to us, too. 

After all, it’s our shift.