Good Samaritan by George Merrill

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Who is my neighbor? The real question is, who are my neighbors?

I remember attending a Eucharist years ago. The homily was memorable, partially because it was mercifully short but also poignant. I’ve never forgotten it.

During the liturgy, the celebrant recited the Summary of the Law: “Thou shalt love the lord thy God will all thy heart with all thy soul and with all thy might, and thy neighbor as thyself.” During his homily, the celebrant posed the question again but rhetorically this time, asking who is my neighbor? He responded, “All those with whom I share space.”

There’s a Biblical story called the Good Samaritan. The story is well known beyond its sectarian boundaries. In fact, it has found its way into American law; it’s known as the Good Samaritan Law. It offers legal protection to people who give assistance to those who are, or whom they believe to be, injured, ill, or in peril. If the help does no good, there are no legal repercussions. We’re free to do good whenever we can. It’s comforting to know in today’s litigious society that when we risk caring for others, we have the full weight of the law behind us.

It’s a humane law. It underscores the assumption of a basic solidarity among humans, and all those with whom we share space. Everyone is our neighbor; some are next door while others are thousands of miles away. Our job, where it’s within our power, is to look out for one another.

Today there’s an undeniable rip current, pulling against our humane instincts. It’s a mindless drive to make those who would naturally be our friends, into our adversaries. One loyal public servant after another is mocked or fired; agencies that serve not only the administration, but also the country’s safety are relentlessly demeaned; the agency for assuring environmental protections, the planet on which all of us share space, exhibits no vision. It’s being sold out to short term economic interests. Migrants, America’s future lifeblood, are being driven from the land.

By now this is old news. I don’t want this to be an “ain’t it awful” rant. Instead, what I’d like to consider is another way of understanding ourselves in today’s adversarial climate. There’s one vision of being with our neighbors and ourselves that might give us heart again and help mitigate the loneliness that our prevailing atmosphere of suspicion has bred.

I’ll paraphrase the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s from the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus is teaching. A lawyer in the crowd asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies; love God with all your heart, your soul, your strength, your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.

The lawyer (pitching a trick question) asks, so who is my neighbor?

Jesus tells him a story:

A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho has been robbed, beaten and his clothes taken. He’s left half-dead. A priest (establishment clergy) passes by to avoid him, as does a Levite (privileged citizen with social capital). A Samaritan (regarded as a low-life) comes by. He has compassion, goes to the victim, administers first aid as best he can, and puts clothes on him. The Samaritan places the victim on his donkey, takes him to the nearest inn, gives the inn keeper money, instructing him to ‘look after him.’ In the event the inn keeper incurs additional expenses, the Samaritan says he’ll pony up for whatever the amount when he passes by this way again.

So, Jesus asks the lawyer, who of the three was the victim’s neighbor?

The one who showed the victim compassion, the lawyer responds.

Now you know who your neighbor is and what you need to do.

Seems to me as if Jesus was saying to the lawyer that if he really wanted to inherit eternal life, he’d first have to get down to earth and get serious and become personally involved with the needs of his neighbors.

One writer said of our time that we live in a season of vanities and spiritual emptiness. Our psycho-spiritual diet has few nutrients. We’re fed mostly junk food. The symptoms are ennui and hopelessness.

Stories can help; parables, sayings that illuminate the soul, can lift us. We need to hear good news; we yearn for a loftier vision.

I’ve read some of the accounts of the early Christian monks, sometimes called hermits. They meditated in the Egyptian desert. They were a quirky lot, one of whom, Simeon, was reported to have lived sitting on top of a pole in order to have a clear and uncluttered spirit to be with God. It’s similar to Buddhists who, when they meditate, say that they “take the one seat,” only Simeon’s practice was more precarious and surely not as comfortable. All were good men.

As quirky as some were, they spoke the language of the spirit and knew the music of our hearts; they knew of the things that are eternal while at the same time were earthy and temporal. One story from that era illustrates this:

“Once, a certain brother brought a bunch of grapes to the holy Macarius. He, however for love’s sake, thought not on his things but on the things of others, carried it to another brother, who seemed more feeble. And the sick man gave thanks for the kindness of his brother, but he too, thinking more of his neighbors than himself, brought it to another, and he again to another, and so that same bunch of grapes was carried around to all the cells, scattered as they were far over the desert; and no one, knowing who first had sent it, it was brought at last to the first giver.”

Considering the miserable climate these men lived in, and despite their personal idiosyncrasies, in my book they sure are the kind of neighbors I’d take any day.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Ruth Clausen says:

    Reminders are always necessary and valuable George. Thanks

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