The Kindness of Strangers

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Have you ever lost your cell phone or worse yet your billfold or purse with your driver’s license and your credit cards?  If you have, you probably can easily remember your sense of panic.  One experience that comes immediately to my mind happened at O’Hare airport.

While I was moving slowly through the security line I noticed that my cell phone was missing.  I panicked as I retraced my steps trying to remember when I last had my phone.  I remembered that I had checked my emails as I was riding to O’Hare in the back of the limo.  Maybe I left my cell phone in the limo or could it have fallen out of my pocket?  So after I passed through security I immediately found a pay phone and called my wife Meg.  She looked up the number of the limo service and said she would call them and then call me right back.

I said, you can’t call me, “I don’t have my cell phone.”  So I waited about five minutes and called her back.  She had gotten a hold of the limo service, they called my limo driver and fortunately he was still in the O’Hare area and he had found my cell phone in the back seat.  So I went back outside to the departure area on the street to meet up with my driver.  I got my phone, I thanked him profusely gave him an additional tip and then raced back, went through security again, ran to my gate and was able to board my plane just in time.

Losing our cell phones is a major inconvenience. Think about all the phone numbers and contact information, pictures, calendar appointments, emails and text messages, all stored at our fingertips.  To some of us losing one’s smart phone feels like the equivalent of leaving one’s life in the back seat of that limo.

Ashton Giese knows this.  The Defense Department analyst was on his way home when he inadvertently dropped his cell phone on a street in Washington, D.C.  When he discovered that his electronic life was missing, he frantically began dialing his cell’s number from another phone.  He didn’t even know what time it was because, like a lot of us 21st century people, he kept time with his phone rather than a watch.

Finally, a voice answered. “Yes, I’ve got your phone; “What’s it worth to you?”

What’s it worth to you?  That’s certainly not the first thing you want to hear from a “good” Samaritan.  Many of us assume there’s a kind of unwritten agreement between losers and finders, and when we’re on the finding end we get a special kind of rush when we’re able to unite someone with their lost valuables. The gushing gratitude of the recipient is enough reward for most of us.

Last month when I was sitting in the airport at Charlestown, WV waiting for my delayed airplane to arrive, I noticed that another passenger dropped something as he passed in front of me.  I got up and retrieved it; it was his boarding pass.  I quickly caught up to him and said to him, “you dropped your boarding pass.”  He was very grateful for my small act of kindness.  His “gushing” words of thanks were all that I was looking for in return for my small favor.

But, that’s not clearly the case for everyone.  “What’s it worth to you?”  Some people look at the misfortune of others as an opportunity to make a quick buck.  We might call them “bad Samaritans.”

Bad Samaritans are focused primarily on maximizing their reward or, in some sense, recouping something of what they believe society owes them, or that they are entitled to receiving for doing the right thing.

A couple of years ago now, Meg called me after I had driven to my interim job in Michigan City.  She said do you have your wallet with you.  I said “I think so,” she said, “are you sure?”    “Why do you ask?”  Well the post office just called and asked if Don Dempsey was missing his wallet.  After looking around in my office and in the car, I said “no,” I don’t have it; IT IS missing.  Well, they have it.  Someone found your wallet and took it to the post office and dropped it in the mailbox.  When Meg picked it up for me, everything seemed to be there, at least the important stuff, my credit cards and my driver’s license. She asked me, “How much money did you have in it?” “About $40 dollars;” well, the money is gone.  I said, “if that is all it cost me and everything else is there, I guess I am pretty lucky.

So whoever found my wallet that day kept the money and thankfully left my credit cards and my license intact.  How did he or she justify taking my money?  Well, they probably said, “If he expected someone was going to return his wallet with the cash, he is probably a little delusional.”

Davy Rothbart, who edits a magazine called Found, which features photos of lost objects, agrees.

“Really good Samaritans, if they find a wallet, they will return it intact,” he says. “Some people find a wallet, take the money, but return the important stuff.  I don’t consider that evil.”

So, what do we call the person who finds a wallet and returns everything but the money? – A “semi-good Samaritan?”  They returned the “important stuff,” but took the money.  It reminds me of the old playground saying: “finders keepers, losers weepers.”

But we good church people, we have been schooled in Scriptures such as the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy 22:1-4, which instructed the Israelites on precisely what to do when they find a stray sheep or ox:

You take it back to the owner with no expectation of, or provision for, any kind of reward.

Whether its sheep or cell phones, or wallets, demanding a reward from a vulnerable person is nothing less than extortion.

The lesson here would seem to be obvious, particularly when we compare the behavior of bad Samaritans, or even semi-good Samaritans, to the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ well known parable.  When we read this passage carefully, we begin to see that the story has an even deeper dimension to it than just the ethics of helping.  It really has to do with how we view people and, more specifically, whether we believe in the kindness of strangers.

Psychologists say that how you perceive strangers is a microcosm of how you perceive the world.  If you believe that most people are intrinsically unethical and that they’d put the screws to you if given a chance, then you’re much more likely to put the screws to someone else. For example, if you find a wallet or a cell phone, what would you do?  Or, as in Jesus’ story, if you see a stranger on the street in need of help, would you stop, get involved and try to help?

People who see strangers as outsiders, as enemies or as something less than themselves will not trust them as equals or as their “neighbors.”

The key to this parable is thus the question that prompts it; a lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

This is a question about ultimate rewards.  For a first-century Jew, “eternal life” meant the life of the age to come, the ultimate covenant blessing that was in store for God’s chosen people.  The lawyer perceived himself to be a member of the covenant community who, like many of his people at the time, held clear ideas about who was within the covenant boundaries set by the Torah and who was outside — who were friends and who were strangers.

Jesus questions him about the Torah law, and the lawyer gives the right answer, the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:5, which was about love for God, and its companion piece from Leviticus 19:18 about loving one’s “neighbor” as oneself.

The definition of neighbor is the sticking point for this lawyer, so he presses Jesus for a legal opinion. Luke says the lawyer wanted to “justify” himself, which is a way of saying he was concerned about defining his “neighbors” as follows:

“My neighbor is a fellow Jew, that is, someone who lives within the covenant boundaries of Judaism.”

Asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” was like saying, “You’re talking about our own people, right?”  Like many of the people of Jesus’ day, the lawyer apparently had big issues with strangers.

So, who is my neighbor?

Jesus responds with this story, one that has become so familiar to us that we often miss the scandalous implications of it for people such as the lawyer.

A man is on his way down the Wilderness Road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which implies that he is a Jew, when he gets set upon by robbers who beat him and leave him for dead.  A priest and a Levite, who should be obvious “neighbors” to their fellow Jew, both pass by on the road and refuse to help. Maybe they had good reasons; for example, their involvement with a battered body might make them ritually unclean to work in the temple.  But Jesus doesn’t elaborate on their reasons for not wanting to get involved; the fact that these two are representatives of the Torah and its covenant rituals is very significant.  The priest and the Levite and, by association, the Torah and the sacrificial system, fail to act in order to save one of their own.

Who does?  A Samaritan, a stranger and an enemy of Israel; to most first-century Jews, “good Samaritan” would have been a laughable oxymoron, as these half-breed people with their own temple were considered pariahs.  However, this Samaritan stops, renders aid and takes care of the Jewish victim’s expenses. He does what the victim’s “own people” won’t do for him.

Although we most often read and preach this story from the perspective of the Samaritan who helps, Jesus hammers home the point from the perspective of the victim in answering the lawyer’s question with a question of his own.

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The stunning answer was, of course, that the Jew in the ditch discovered that the Samaritan was his neighbor and that the others — those geographically, ethnically and religiously similar — were not.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The lawyer’s question was the same as that of the rich young man in Luke 18:18-25, and Jesus’ answer is essentially the same:

You must learn a new way to be God’s covenant people and a new way of understanding God’s kingdom.

And, for starters, you must redefine your definition of “neighbor” to include the stranger and the outsider.

Jesus would live that out by spending time and eating with the outcasts and, interestingly, the tax collectors, who made their living essentially by extortion!

Following Jesus means we are called to “go and do likewise.”  We are called to see others not as good or bad or strangers, but as people who deserve  our presence and our help. As God’s people are called to never play “finders-keepers, losers-weepers,” nor are we to see ourselves as being more deserving or better than anyone else.  When it comes to the kindness of strangers, we tend to get what we expect.

What if George Zimmerman that night that he was on watch, supposedly protecting his neighborhood, what if he had simply approached Trayvon Martin and politely asked if he needed some help?  Trayvon might have simply answered, “No, I am on the way to my father’s house; he lives right down the street.”  That would have been the end of it.

If we’re kind and helpful to people we don’t know, the stranger, or the person in need or in trouble, in most circumstances, we’re likely to see that kindness returned.  Even if we don’t receive reciprocal care and help, we know that God has called us to love the stranger regardless.  And isn’t that what it means to be God’s people?

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

You must learn a new way to be God’s covenant people and a new way of understanding God’s kingdom.

As followers of Jesus we are called to “go and do likewise.” Amen!