I referred in the previous post to Dr. King’s use of the parable in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech of April 3, 1968. The speech was delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before Dr. King was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In that speech, he makes a brief but pointed reference to the parable. He draws a simple distinction between the first two travelers in the parable and the third, the Samaritan. The first two, Dr. King notes, asked (and I paraphrase), “If I stop, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan asks, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to him?”
Dr. King connects that question to his presence with and for the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. “That’s the question before you tonight,” King said, “Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?’ Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question,” Dr. King concluded.
That’s an important and compelling framing of the central question in the text. However, I’m not sure it is quite the focus of the parable as presented in the Lukan account. As Matt Skinner notes in the current SermonBrainwave podcast, perhaps the question is different. Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who, then, was neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The question is more about what it means to be neighbor than it is about what happened to the man. Perhaps, as Skinner suggests, the question is, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to me?”
In practical terms, if I don’t stop, nothing is going to happen to me. I’ll just go on my merry way. But if I have any compassion at all, I will take that beaten and bloodied man with me. And I will find myself to be less of a human being than I was before. That, I think, is what will happen to me.
As we travel to Sunday worship, we pass the same man on a street corner each week. He appears to be unhoused and with few resources. He has a hand-lettered sign and a few belongings in a pile along the street. He creates a new sign each week. It is always some variation of “Need help. All gifts appreciated.” When the stoplight at the corner is red, or there is no traffic behind us when it is green, we hand the man five or ten dollars. He always responds with a loud and clear “Thank you!”
I am blessed to share my life with a generous, compassionate, and loving spouse. She plans ahead to make sure we have some cash to share with the man alongside the street. We often don’t carry much cash these days, so it takes just a bit of foresight and effort to be prepared to respond. But that’s the smallest of efforts. And it is her effort, not mine, usually.
If the interaction happens to come up in a conversation, someone is certain to suggest that the money will go for alcohol, drugs, or both. Perhaps, some would argue, we are “wasting our money.” Worse yet, we may even be enabling bad or self-destructive behavior on the part of the man. Worst of all, in the eyes of some, we are naïve simpletons, conned by another scam artist happy to separate us fools from our folding money.
Any or all of those things may be true. I don’t wish to minimize or dismiss those concerns. I wonder and worry about those things as well. In addition, I grew up in a home where cash was scarce, and bills were omnipresent threats. I often feel anxious when I hand money over to someone else. What will happen to me if and when I don’t have enough? Perhaps I will compete with the Sunday man for that prime bit of panhandling property.
Of course, that’s not going to happen (at least it is highly unlikely). Yet, the anxiety is often there. If I give him some money, what will happen to me? But if I don’t, what sort of person will I become?
If that’s the question (and I think it’s one of them, anyway), then, for example, we don’t have to worry about the motivations and rationales that caused the priest and the Levite to “pass by on the other side.” In the story, we can assume that they each had rationales that made good sense to them at the moment. We can charitably believe that they made the best decisions they could at the time. But what did they think of themselves later?
If and when I pass by on the other side, I become a little more selfish and a little less compassionate. The Sunday man in my life isn’t beaten and bloodied, half-dead by the side of the road. For all I know, he lives as well as I do (but I don’t think so). But if I pass him by, I leave behind a bit of my humanity there with him. If I do that often enough, I’m not sure how much humanity I will have left at some point. If I pass by on the other side, I fear that’s what will happen to me.
You might think this sounds self-interested in the extreme. I don’t mean it to be that way. I don’t think I respond to the Sunday man simply to get a boost to my ego or additional raw material for my delusions of grandeur. Instead, I’m trying to reflect on the outcome of my actions, not the reason for them. Turning down the chance to act with compassion ends up making me less authentically human than I was before. Do that enough times, and I may cease to inhabit this existence as anything resembling the creature God has made me to be.
Who turned out to be neighbor to the man by the side of the road? The one who showed him mercy. The man who fell among robbers was raised up to live again. The man who turned aside in compassion and care was raised up to live more fully. Jesus tells the lawyer to get out there and do the same thing—to live as the compassionate caregiver God created him to be.
This perspective on the text makes me think about what it means to be an ally and an accomplice in the ongoing struggles against racist behavior in myself, in our Church, and in our American society. I can become clear about the results of our racist system for BIPOC folks. The life-draining disparities in educational, healthcare, housing, transportation, employment, wealth, and political resources between White people and BIPOC folks is well-documented, even when vociferously denied or studiously ignored.
Our racist system has left people literally and figuratively lying by the side of the road – beaten, bloodied and half-dead – for four hundred years.
Some people have been left fully dead. The differential treatment by law enforcement of Jayland Walker and Robert Crimo screams out the realities of what we do to BIPOC folks through our law enforcement systems. The airwaves are filled with White voices that seek to vociferously deny or studiously ignore that deadly disparity as well. If we “pass by on the other side,” we can be clear about what that means for BIPOC folks in America.
But what does it mean for us, who are White and privileged and powerful? It means that we must make ourselves less than fully human beings. At the very least, we must segregate all reminders of such suffering and lock away those reminders behind massive doors of denial. If we are to pass by on the other side, we must spend large amounts of energy and effort pretending not to see anything or anyone at all. That’s one of the reasons we White people continue to live in racially isolated and heterogeneous neighborhoods. The only neighbors we can stand to see are those who, like us, benefit daily from the systemic carnage that racism perpetrates.
We are left anxious and afraid. We are left outraged and offended. We are left vicious and violent. We become liars about our own history and looters of the histories and cultures of others. And when someone challenges our White goodness and innocence, we become all the more enraged that someone would dare to name the reality we spend so much of ourselves to suppress.
If I pass by on the other side of the road in this oppressive, racist system, what will I become? A hollow man. An amoral shell. A performance of whiteness because I have no authentic self out of which to live. That’s what will happen to me. I become incapable of loving God and loving neighbor. And I become incapable even of loving myself.
We don’t know how the lawyer responds in the end. How will we?
References and Resources
Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.
Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.