29 But wanting to vindicate himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and took off, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came upon him, and when he saw him he was moved with compassion. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, treating them with oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him, and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
We are about to spend a month examining generosity and the sharing of resources, wisdom, justice and power. I have a standing objection to approaching biblical material with a predetermined category. Such an approach, at worst, slides easily into proof texting and at best, almost certainly limits our ability to hear new possibilities because we have already picked the one we wish to pursue.
The ‘expert in the law’ was asking Jesus to parse out what is required to gain eternal life. It is a familiar, secular attempt to figure out the rules for proper conduct and acceptability. How much is enough? What exactly counts on the score sheet when we are tallying up good deeds? Do we get stars in our crown if we give ten percent of our income? Do we get demerits if we give nine percent? These questions are crucial if we are trying to get into college, a country club or are seeking a promotion. They quite miss the point if we are talking about loving God or neighbor. In real life, we live in constant ambiguity and uncertainty when we seek to be loving.
Loving can not be quantified—and even if it looks more quantifiable, neither can generosity. We tend to measure generosity in terms of dollar amounts or in terms of inconvenience. Is fifty dollars from a millionaire and fifty dollars from a minimum wage earner the same? Is something less generous if it comes easily to us—or if we also benefit? In our FIRL group several people had difficulty thinking of themselves as generous. Most commonly, the attitude was, “If something needs to be done, you just do it.” Or, if it doesn’t pinch when you give, it is not generous. Or, “I may be generous but I’m not generous enough.” All of these questions and qualifiers belong to the ‘expert in the law’. Jesus spoke in different terms. He pointed out that the Samaritan ‘was moved with compassion.’ He saw and he was moved to action. There is no mention of his financial status or the degree of risk.
My definition is mindfulness plus service. We can ‘see’ but not do anything and we can serve without being mindful. All too often we seek to help based upon what we think is needed without carefully assessing what the other person needs. Linda Huffine has a long list of well intended contributions to food pantries that are virtually worthless to the homeless—i.e. cans requiring can openers, brownie mix that requires an oven or gifts of food that we wouldn’t eat ourselves. More interpersonally, most have received well intended advice that was unsolicited and missed the point. Those of us who problem solvers and ‘fixers’ are particularly prone to miss out on the mindfulness part. Finally, what is mindful in one generation may often miss the mark in another. I was raised to open doors for women. It was polite and certainly considered mindful. Then we went through a time when the same act of service was considered condescending. Oops. Very few rules or customs do not undergo changes and mindfulness requires a willingness to adapt to the needs of the person in front of us rather than defensively insisting on what we are familiar with. (It is why Jesus emphasized the spirit of the law over obedience to it.)
In our FIRL groups, a consistent point of deep gratitude was for the seemingly small acts of service that showed them other people saw them and cared about what they were going through. They frequently used the phrase ‘just listening’. But careful listening is mindfulness at its best. It is difficult and often expensive. There is no such thing as ‘just’ listening. When I was in seminary, my brother was diagnosed with an osteosarcoma—which was going to require his arm to be amputated. His life was in danger. My supervisor meant well but he missed me completely. He spent his time assuring me that I did not have to worry about my grade in the course. Usually he would have been on target—but in this case, my grade was of zero importance. By contrast, one of my peers drove me to the airport. He was more conservative than me and tended to speak in religious formulas. As we were leaving for the hour-long drive, I told him that I preferred to ride in silence. I know it was uncomfortable for him but he did so. His respectful silence was a gift I appreciate to this day.
The willingness to serve is necessary but not sufficient but the awareness of need is also necessary but not sufficient. That situation is certainly well documented in today’s scripture. We read that both the priest and the Levite saw but walked on by. These men are really easy targets. Who walks by a bleeding man on the side of the road? Unfortunately, the answer is most of us. It might not be literally applicable but anyone who takes a walk in Decatur has walked by persons in obvious need. The world always presents us with more needs than our ability to respond. It is not our place to judge and we shouldn’t be quite so quick to do so. In real life it is difficult to be mindful and it is difficult to choose when to respond to what we see.
The point of this passage is not to give criteria for judging the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. It is to point us toward a life of regard and service—which is what Jesus teaches is the answer to the question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? If we actually want a life that has meaning beyond our life times, we, with the “expert in the law” are to “Go and do likewise.” It is a pattern of living. It is not a score sheet or a grade book. Generosity is not a series of oughts as much as it is an opportunity to experience joy. If you have had the experience of being generous, it brings joy. It is not necessarily easy. In fact generosity often stretches us but if we stay within our limits and give to another—by any means, cards, money, presence, giving feels good.
Because generosity is so often quantified and used to rank our relative goodness, it is hard to stay focused on the motive that Jesus teaches in this parable. He suggests that the motive was the Samaritan’s compassion. At its heart generosity is a concrete expression of regard. If we give for any other reason—to do what we ought, to impress or to gain benefit for ourselves, we set ourselves up for entitlement and resentment. In real life, we often can not be what we wish we could be. In real life, we will always be inadequate to the needs around us. In real life, generosity must also be extended to ourselves. We must be mindful of our own limits and we must be willing to both offer and receive self care.
It is really simple. We believe our lives gain meaning and the world is a better place when we are mindful of others and are moved to respond.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.