The Roots of Caregiving

I was teaching my Bible Study group last week, a group that meets at a large regional mall. The subject was Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan recorded in Luke chapter 10 of the Bible. The story stimulated considerable discussion. In Jesus’ tale, an unnamed man falls prey to robbers along a well-traveled but dangerous highway. They leave him half dead. Two religious officials pass him by without even offering help but an ordinary citizen whose country and faith was at enmity with the nation where the story takes place stops and gives him every kind of short and long-term aid imaginable.

When my group talked about it they expressed the usual judgments about who the good guys and bad guys are in the story. But that response misses the point. Jesus told his story to a religious lawyer who thought he knew it all and had mastered the art of living. He knew he was duty bound to love God and his neighbor. All he needed now was to fill in a tiny technical detail. So he asked Jesus, “Who then is my neighbor?”

Jesus didn’t answer the legal question. Instead, he shaped a tale that shoves the lawyer and everyone who reads or hears it into the ditch along with the injured man. We are all drawn to this unnamed, unidentified character and for a moment become the person in need of help. That changes our perspective. The question no longer is who can I with some sense of moral superiority go out and be for them a good neighbor but who is proving to be a good neighbor to me? The lesson to the religion lawyer was that he was the one in need, in need of love, friendship and ultimately, a savior.

The point is that we all need help and not just from time to time but constantly. Those who give that help are our neighbors by Jesus’ definition But their help poses a question, for whom are we a neighbor right now? Who is depending on us for spiritual, moral or physical support? The message of this parable is that we are never in any position to act out of some sense of noblesse oblige but that we can give because we have first received and love because we have already been loved, by God if by no one else.

There is no “one up and one down” in this world. As Martin Luther pointed out we are all beggars in need of God and one another. With all the hate and division in our world today we do well to remember that and remember as well that a great life flows not from a sense of either duty or entitlement but from a spirit of humble thanksgiving.

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Keep Your Own Agenda

One of the most famous sayings of Jesus is his challenge to love your enemy. This always struck me as an odd piece of advice. If I love someone they really aren’t my enemy are they? If they are my enemy then by strict definition I can’t love them.  If I do that their enemy status evaporates.

I finally figured out that this saying has little to do with enemies but much to do with keeping our own agenda in life. The idea is don’t let anyone’s actions or attitudes toward you dictate your actions and attitudes toward them. We have to maintain a kind of wall between ourselves and others. They are what they are. The important thing is that we persist in being who we are.

In the same chapter of the Bible, Jesus also said “Bless those curse you” and “Do good to those who hate you.” It’s all the same thing. These statements don’t mean that we necessarily go around blessing and doing good all the time (of course there’s nothing wrong with that!) His point was much bigger.

We just finished a nasty election season. Sitting in the dialysis waiting room I listened as people talked about its outcome. Most were bitter and angry about something. You could feel the hate and see it on their faces. They had been sucked into a national mood of extreme partisan and ideological antagonism. Good people say we need to “come together”, but that isn’t happening and it won’t at the corporate level at least. The only cure for our dark cultural attitude is for each one of us to take Jesus’ advice. We need to ignore whatever mood binds our society and concentrate instead on valuing what we personally value. We have to believe what we individually believe and hold fast to our own (hopefully positive) attitudes toward life. We must never, for even a moment, let the values, beliefs, and attitudes dominate the times that define our lives. Keep your own agenda, and don’t let anyone else set it for you.