If you are paying any attention to how people drive in Fort Wayne, and in Indiana in general, you have to wonder why people can’t be nicer to each other. People speeding up to pass without using their turn signals, people passing in no passing zones, people cussing and giving other people the finger while driving, people so busy on their cell phones that they are oblivious to traffic or conditions around them. It’s exasperating!
This is how Jesus feels about us in general, and he expresses it clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Why can’t people just be nice to each other? Why can’t people love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves? It’s not that much extra work, and the whole world would be a better place.
Some will say we’re being naïve when we ask why people can’t be nicer to each other, because the world is complex. Other people, they tell us, have expectations and desires, and these are bound to come into conflict with our expectations and desires. We shouldn’t be so naïve as to think that we can change anything about the way our world operates.
But Jesus was not naive, nor was he ignorant of the ways of the world. His very telling of a story of a Levite and a priest walking away, two people who could be expected to care for the wounded and the downtrodden, tells us that Jesus was anything but ignorant of the way things really are. And yet, despite this knowledge, Jesus has the courage of his convictions and the audacity to actually expect us to live as people of love.
There was a psychology experiment at Princeton University a number of years ago. Researchers interviewed students at the School of Theology about their motivations for studying theology. The students were then given one of two different assignments. They were to go to another building to give a five-minute presentation on either the Good Samaritan parable or discuss how their personal religious calling was impacting their choice of vocation. After explaining both assignments, the researchers told each student one of two things. He either looked at his watch and murmured, “Oh my, you’re late! They were expecting you by now and it’s a five minute walk from here,” or he told the student “You’ve got a few minutes, but why don’t you head over now?”
Then came the experiment. An actor had been hired by the researchers to sit on a bench along the pathway to the presentation building, and the actor was to double over in pain, to moan and groan in agony as the theology student walked past. The question the researchers wanted answered was, “How many future pastors would actually stop to help?”
Obviously, the students who had been assigned the presentation on the Good Samaritan parable would—one would expect—be more likely to stop and assist the person who was in pain. This is not what happened, however. Having this parable firmly in mind had little impact on whether they would stop. 63% of those who were told they had some extra time stopped to help, and of those who believed they were late for their presentation, only 10% took the time to see whether there was anything they could do for the man in pain.
The experiment tells us two things. First, and rather depressingly, it tells us that even among those who had time to help, among a group of people one would expect to be compassionate and caring, 37% did not stop. But the numbers also tell us that when we are busy or in a hurry, and so many of us spend so much of our daily lives busy and in a hurry, 90% of us don’t make the little extra effort to just be nice to each other, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Failing to love our neighbors isn’t always about being mean or uncaring or callous or rude. All too often, it’s about our busyness, our needs, which pull on us from so many directions that we lose sight of the things that really should count. Commentators on the Good Samaritan have long hypothesized that the priest and Levite were concerned about being ritually impure if they’d helped the wounded man, so that they would be unable to carry out their roles in the worship of the Temple, they would be unable to touch anyone else, even their own wives and children, for 14 days if they had stopped to help. Others have suggested that they might be worried about their own safety– that the man in the ditch may have been a decoy and a band of outlaws was waiting in ambush. Whatever the case, these were not bad men. They did not intend to leave a man to die. They just had other things on their minds, they were in a hurry, they had other duties, other people were depending on them, someone else would look after him, surely.
Love is indeed a verb, but it’s also an attitude. When St. Paul wrote about love in the first letter to the Corinthians, (that reading we so often hear at weddings about love being patient and kind), he wrote about a quality that would ensure that all who possess it would hold all things in balance, that the important things in life would be attended to and the unimportant things shrugged off.
Hearing the story of the Good Samaritan, it is so easy to condemn the Levite and the priest for their lack of concern. But maybe we should be praying for ourselves, that our busyness and our fears about safety, our hurriedness and our being overwhelmed by all that we must deal with daily will never keep us from our primary job—living the two most important commandments of God: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.