This week I’m contributing to The Glorious Table. Visit the site for daily devotions and insightful readings.
Then an expert in the law stood up to test him, saying “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the law?” he asked him. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
“You’ve answered correctly,” he told him. “Do this and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus took up the question and said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jerico and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaratan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’
“Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into he hands of the robbers?”
“The one who showed mercy to him,” he said.
Then Jesus told him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:25-37 CSB)
In ancient Israel, to be a good Jew meant following the Law as laid out by Moses. This was more complicated than just the Ten Commandments we’re used to. To be upright in the sight of God and those around you meant staying clean, not touching or eating certain things that could cause you to be physically and spiritually unclean, and so on. As they say, cleanliness is next to Godliness, so to be a devout Jew was to be devout and the way to be devout was to follow the Law. The end.
Enter Jesus and his uncanny ability to question the Law. Rather than just answering the questions posed to him, he answered a question with a question. Those listening to the story of the man left for dead, teachers and leaders who followed the Law, would not have been scandalized that the priest and the Levite passed by. To touch the man would have caused great inconvenience. It would have made them spiritually unclean, and the process to become clean again was quite an ordeal. Better to avoid the possibility of becoming unclean and simply move along.
The Samaritan, on the other hand, was already considered unclean. He was a second-class citizen, despised because of his religious practices. The Samaritan didn’t have anything to lose. Perhaps the Samaritan saw himself in the man left for dead. Surely, he had just narrowly avoided such a fate. Who would have stopped to help him, had he been the one robbed and beaten? The two previous passersby walked a road of law-abiding self-preservation while the Samaritan walked a road of compassion, mercy, and dignity.
In many cities and towns across the country, including my own, homelessness has become a significant problem in recent years. In my city, I’ve noticed a marked difference in the general attitude toward our homeless population. It has shifted from indifference or pity to disgust, contempt, villainization, and even blame of the homeless for community problems without just cause. Many in my Bible-Belt town believe that the answer is simply getting rid of the homeless by passing laws that make it difficult for them to exist instead of supporting services that provide shelter, meals, and case workers. To be sure, there is a large segment of the population that wants to help with solutions of compassion, but the voices of outrage and contempt have become louder and louder.
For reasons I can’t completely figure out, the homeless are no longer people to pity but something to despise. They have become the man in the parable, unclean and, in turn, making the city unclean. The Haves have lost the ability to see themselves in the faces and places of the Have-Nots. When we can’t see ourselves in someone else or imagine what it is like to live on the street or what it took to get there, we cease to have mercy and compassion, and when people are dehumanized, it is easy to justify harsh and cruel treatment.
I’m not perfect. I admit that I’ve watched a woman in my town walking down the street, talking loudly to herself, and my heart has been hardened. I’ve seen women and men choose to lie down on the sidewalk in the middle of the day while homeless services are less than a mile away. I have a difficult time feeling compassion because I have a hard time seeing myself in that situation. I have access to doctors, a therapist, and a family who would take care of me if I lost everything. I’ve never suffered from a mental illness so debilitating that I couldn’t function in society. It’s hard for me to imagine what that must be like. I must be careful because this train of thought can lead to indifference, indifference can lead to a lack of compassion, and a lack of compassion can justify all manner of ugly, selfish, and harmful words and actions.
So what now? As Christians, we talk a big game of deifying our neighbors and taking care of “the least of these,” but too often such care comes with conditions. Jesus is clear: care for those who need help even if it’s inconvenient. Even if we want to recoil or have a hard time seeing ourselves in someone’s circumstances. We have to exchange our feelings of fear and indifference for compassion.
So how do we do this? In the case of homelessness, we can find out what services are provided in our town and the agencies that provide them. Seek out those agencies and find out from their staff what is causing local homelessness and what solutions are available. We can find out how to can support meaningful homeless assistance that ensures the dignity of the “least of these” in our communities.
Let’s take the way of compassion, mercy, and dignity and see where it leads.