Have you ever been in a relationship that felt as if it was slowly dragging you down?
(Oh…I’m sorry…Happy Valentine’s Day everybody!)
Actually, I don’t really mean that kind of relationship.
I’m thinking more about other kinds of relationships—I’m talking about those shifts in some friendships when they come to seem more like an ongoing drain on our energy than the source of strength or joy that they once were.
Has that ever happened to you?
Have you ever had a co-worker who starts out as a real comrade…one of those relationships where you have each other’s backs…where you feel like veterans of the great battles, or co-sufferers under some sort of epically terrible boss, except then, somehow, over time one thing leads to another, and you get out of step with each other, and there comes to be this unspoken, terrible knowledge that you’ve started to leave them behind?
Ever happened to you?
Or maybe this: Do you have a sibling or cousin who was a close companion when you were younger, but who ended up pointing in a very different direction, somehow…the kind of person who asks you a lot of suspicious questions about how close Greenwich is to New York City…and whose kids you don’t really know, but hear tell about, and it seems not great, somehow, but….But…Well…
If you’ve ever been in a relationship or made a commitment that started to feel as if it was dragging you down, then you know why it is that we are so afraid of having that happen.
If you have, then you know all too well its particular strange brew of frustration and guilt, impatience and sadness, the sense that you’re being challenged to show your loyalty rather than actually solve a problem, if the problem is even something that can be solved, or that you specifically, can somehow make a difference with. And so on.
What we owe one another and why we do are not simple things to answer.
It’s important to remember that as we consider this morning’s parable from Luke, this story of the man on the road to Jericho who falls among thieves, and is only saved by a person who at the time, would have sounded like the most unlikely of rescuers—a good Samaritan.
The story does not tell us much about the man thrown in the ditch. We don’t know if he was a particularly obvious target, or if the thieves were particularly vicious in that stretch of country.
It is true that along the steep, relatively short road from Jerusalem to Jericho, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, there were a series of natural caves where bandits used to hide, waiting for the odd, solitary traveler who was moving too slowly, and who offered the prospect of a quick shakedown.
The man is robbed, beaten within an inch of his life, and thrown in a ditch, and that’s when the story gets interesting…because he is not helped by the first people who find him…who hear him groaning softly over on the side of the road.
We’re told that first a priest—which is to say, a religious professional—and then a Levite—which is to say, a lay assistant—not only do not help the man in the ditch; they explicitly see the man and yet cross to the other side of the road.
That is, the very people we might most expect to help—the typical do-gooders, the pitcher-in-ers, the people who always get called in a crisis, the people who know people… consciously decide not to help. We’re never told exactly why.
And so the help, when it comes, comes from what would have been an unlikely source. A rich Samaritan. Someone who would have been detested—considered a heretic, an ethnically unclean person…someone who would have been seen as not simply different, but distasteful. Someone that nice people wouldn’t even touch, or share a water-fountain with.
And yet he is the one who helps. He’s the one who acts in the name of the common good. He’s the one who rises above, and who does the good thing that we hope anyone would do.
If there is one simple moral to the story, then of course, it is that we should be like the Samaritan, that helping those in need shouldn’t stand on any other principle, that—well, Jesus says it: “Go thou and do likewise.” That’s all there is to it.
We should. We absolutely, absolutely should.
The question that remains, however, is why we don’t.
And that’s why it is important to remember that what we owe one another and why we do are not simple things to answer.
I find it hard to imagine that the priest and the Levite had no concept of the common good, or any sense that we have obligations to one another as members of the human family.
I can’t imagine that if they saw a child break free of his mother’s hand and start running straight toward a busy road that they wouldn’t have jumped up and grabbed him in order to keep him out of harm’s way.
I can’t imagine that they didn’t give to charity.
I can’t imagine that they didn’t dream of how the world might become a better place, and of how they could be a part of that.
As religious people, they would have been crystal clear about the obligations we have to one another—this is not a case of lacking the right information about what God expects.
In some sense, it doesn’t even matter, of course, if you’re religious or not: pretty much everyone believes in helping other people in some way, shape or form.
But what’s harder to see is that helping other people is never a general kind of thing. It’s never abstract. It’s never hypothetical.
And because helping is relentlessly particular, what may be even harder to see is when the moment to help someone else is now…when this is the moment to go all in and risk reaching out to help another….when this is the situation in which God imagines we could be the solution, or part of the solution.
When do we know that we’re in some dare-to-be-great moment?
When is it the right thing to do to send a check to your niece in Texas who’s trying to get back on her feet?
When is it the right thing to do to speak up in the face of an intolerant or an insensitive remark by a supervisor? Or for that matter, a son-in-law?
When do you hear shouting next door and decide to go over and see…or to call for someone to go over and see?
When do you see something, and maybe you’re not quite sure what, by the side of the road…in a dangerous part of town…and decide to risk leaving the safety of your own vehicle?
There is no simple answer. There are no promises that getting involved will prove tidy and temporary or that it will come out just fine.
Life teaches us to be wary, and to avoid the kind of commitments that can only drag us down, and indeed, some do.
And yet the questions remain: what if we don’t act? What if nobody else does? What if nobody else cares? What if everyone else plays it safe, too?
So Jesus teaches us a different way.
Jesus challenges us to recognize that any moment might be a dare-to-be-great moment.
He challenges us not guard ourselves against the messiness of helping, and invites to live not only as neighbors, but toward a day when we will see one another as sisters and brothers, as members of the human family.
It is not simple.
There is no easy, new boundary to draw that makes whom to help and when become unambiguous.
There is just this challenge to wade into the messiness of helping–the challenge of learning not to shy away.
There is no focus on whether we’re being dragged down, but rather a desire to reach the safety of the shore together. It is a way of living that honors both loyalty and truth.
The common good depends on countless individual acts of uncommon courage, uncommon generosity, and uncommon vision.
To the first hearers of the parable, it was remarkable to imagine that someone like a Samaritan could show such uncommon virtue.
To us, it seems remarkable to imagine that we could show such uncommon faith.
So that’s our challenge.
I wonder if this week, we can push ourselves to recognize every moment as an opportunity to make some gesture, to do some work of peace or healing, to risk the messiness of relationship in some new way.
On Valentine’s Day, as we celebrate love, let’s remember also that to love someone is not romantic only, but is more deeply to desire their good, and to be willing to act in order for that good to be secured.
So what good is it in your power to do?
Will you do it, or will you pass by the side of the road?
“Who was the one who was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” Jesus asks.
“The one who showed him compassion,” answers the scribe.
Jesus said, “Go thou and do likewise.”