Slurs and hateful language fill the air. Bullies push people around on playgrounds and in workplaces. Drivers cut you off and then make obscene gestures. The right and the left divisions grows uglier and harsher.
What in the world can you do? Perhaps would could… Be Helpful. Be Kind. Be Creative. Be Good.
Steven Petrow was waiting in a long line at his favorite bakery which makes amazing scones. Watching the people ahead of him pluck the delicious scones out of the glass case, he worried the bakery would run out. But when he got to the counter, he saw there was one left, so he pointed and said, “I’ll take that one.”
No sooner had he spoken than a guy behind him shouted, “Hey, that’s my scone! I’ve been waiting in line for 20 minutes!”
Petrow understood the man had been waiting, but a line is a line.
What do you think Petrow said to the man? He could have declared, “Sorry about your luck. Get up earlier next time.” He had every right to do so. Instead, Petrow said to the mane, “Would you like half?”
The man was shocked, as were the other patrons, but after a moment the man accepted the offer and made a suggestion of his own: “How about I buy another pastry and we can share both?”
The two men then sat down together and shared their pastries while they chatted. The two men had almost nothing in common in terms of jobs, age, political views or marital status. They were strangers. But they shared a moment of connection, civility, and simple kindness.
Petrow says, “I felt happy. And, frankly, I wanted more of that feeling.”
Don’t we all want more of that kind of feeling?
I know how we can get it. Be Helpful. Be Kind. Be Creative. Be Good.
Jesus tells a story about someone being helpful, kind, creative and good, and it’s our text for today.
The stage for telling this story is set when a lawyer tests Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus responds in a very sensible and matter-of-fact way, asking him, “What is written in the law?”
The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus, pointing to the commandments to love the Lord and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus commends him, saying, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But the lawyer isn’t done with his test, and asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”, fully expecting Jesus to describe his neighbor as a person of similar race, religion, job, age, political views or marital status.
Instead, Jesus tells a story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”
The lawyer is probably thinking, “Okay, Jesus is saying this Jewish man, walking from Jerusalem to Jericho is my neighbor.”
The plot thickens though when Jesus says, “Now by chance a priest was going down that road and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”
Certainly aware of the law, the lawyer thinks about the people he knows who never get their hands “dirty” by helping neighbors in need. He has seen them in action: religious folk who consistently fail to love their neighbors as themselves. But Jesus isn’t done, and next comes a curveball: “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.”
The lawyer didn’t this coming at all: Jesus is speaking kindly of a stranger, and not just any kind of stranger, but a Samaritan— a half-Jew, a foreigner from a different culture and caste, an outsider who deserves only racial slurs and hateful abuse. Where is Jesus going with this?
Jesus says the Samaritan went to the Jewish man “and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. 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; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’”
The lawyer, at this point is shell-shocked by this next level of kindness and compassion. That’s when Jesus looks the lawyer square in the eye and asks him, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer thought Jesus was talking about the Jewish man as the neighbor, but now he knows Jesus is describing the Samaritan as the neighbor.
To Jesus’ question the lawyer can only say, “The one who showed him mercy.”
To which Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Usually, when we study this story, we ask the question: “Who is my neighbor?” It’s a good and faithful question, for sure. Still, there is a question we don’t ask, but should: “Who is a ‘Good Samaritan’?”
We use the term “Good Samaritan” to describe anyone who puts time and effort into helping a person in need. Such efforts certainly deserve commendation. But a true Good Samaritan is someone of a different cultural caste who helps a person outside of that ethnic circle. The term applies to an outsider who helps an insider, not the other way around.
If the parable were to be written today, it would feature a Christian being helped by a Hindu, a or a Buddhist, or a Muslim. The outsider status of the Samaritan is what makes the story so powerful, taking it to a new level. The essential aspect of a true Good Samaritan is the difference in ethnicity, caste or cultural status.
Jesus is teaching us we should not only be helpful, kind, and good to those who look and sound and think like us. We must be helpful, kind, and good to all people, especially those who are different—and to do so will require us to be creative in going to this next level of kindness and compassion.
Jesus says to the lawyer, and to us, go and show kindness to the Samaritan foreigner who is the victim of racial slurs and hateful abuse. Go and help the refugee family struggling to find their place in American society. Go and be creative in how you do these things that are good—like showing kindness by splitting your scone with a person of a different age, race, political view or marital status. Jesus is saying, “See how to be helpful, kind, creative, and good, then…Go and do likewise.”
In addition to missing the next important question from this text, we often miss seeing what had to be the joy discovered by the Samaritan when he helped the victim.
When we hear the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to provide lodging and nursing, we think, “What a generous guy.” But the reality is the Samaritan wanted to help the wounded man. It gave him joy. As Steven Petrow said after splitting his scone, “I felt happy and, frankly, wanted more of that feeling.”
Melanie Rudd, professor of marketing at the University of Houston, has a name for the boost we get from being kind: “Helper’s high”, which is the warm glow we feel when we help other people and see them happy.
What is interesting is that Rudd calls this kind of giving “impure altruism.” She sees it as impure not because it is bad, but because it benefits the giver as well as the receiver. She sates, “It’s hard to do something truly altruistic, because we always feel good about it ourselves after we’ve performed the act of kindness.”
Call it altruism or impure altruism; call it pure kindness or kindness that includes a “Helper’s High”—in the end, it’s all good. And best of all, it’s contagious. It’s contagious because the kindness of other people rubs off on us and makes us more kind.
Stanford University professor of psychology Jamil Zaki has spent years studying how kindness can be transmitted. He says in the journal Scientific America, “Kindness itself is contagious. It can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way. For instance, people make larger charitable gifts when they believe others are being generous. And in situations where people cannot afford to donate, one individual’s kindness can inspire others to spread positivity in other ways.”
Zaki concludes saying, “When we see other people around us acting in generous or kind or empathic ways, we will be more inclined to act that way ourselves.”
The helpfulness of the Good Samaritan advanced a movement of helpfulness that continues to the present day. And it is the model for us to be helpful, kind, creative, and good.
When I started dropping my kids off at school, I got into the habit of sending them off with well wishes for a good day, along with telling them I love them. And every day I add… “Be Helpful. Be Kind. Be Creative. Be Good.”
I say this because it’s in an effort to remind them, and me, to be Good Samaritans—in every sense of the term. It’s an effort to remind them, and me, that helpfulness and kindness and goodness can happen in all kinds of way, and being creative at doing so can change a person, and it can change us…for good.
A few weeks ago we as a church chatted about how we would respond to the violence, vitriol, and division seen and felt around our country. We went away from the chat with some ideas; some things to think and pray about; and a commitment to keep the conversation going so that tangible actions are taken—and that follow-up conversation is in the works to happen in a few weeks.
It is an effort for us as a church to find new ways to be helpful, kind, creative, and good.
Maybe we will do this work by hosting a peaceful conversation of differing world views.
Maybe we will do this work by taking a class about another religion.
Maybe we will do this work by attending an interfaith peace service.
Maybe we will do this work by building bunk beds, or finding ways to expand Loaves and Fishes, or even by splitting the last pastry with a stranger.
But we can start the work now by asking the questions: Who is my neighbor? And… Am I a Good Samaritan?
Helpfulness. Kindness. Creativity. Goodness.
All of them started by God. All of them advanced by the Good Samaritan.
All of them change lives. All of them bring joy.
May we go and do likewise. Amen.