ABC Extra: Not So Neighborly

March 21, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

When I moved to Austin in 1996 to go to college, I was a scrawny seventeen year-old. As I settled into college life, hung out and ate Top Ramen in our 1950’s rundown dorm, and turned eighteen, I felt the need to “bulk up.” After all, I was on my own now. And I was eighteen so I was a “man.” And so, I hit the gym with one of my buddies. Almost immediately, my eyes darted to the bench press. “This is exactly what I need!” I thought to myself. “I’ll be benching a couple hundred pounds in no time at all.” Of course, I needed to start with a little less than two hundred pounds. After all, I hadn’t bulked up yet. And so, I lugged four twenty-five pound plates onto the bar for a mere one hundred pounds. “I’ll just lift this to get warmed up,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t even lift the bar. So, I switched out the plates and reduced the bench press to eighty pounds. Still no dice. Finally, I tried fifty. This, I managed to lift. But I also forgot to put the pins on the ends of the bar. And the plates quickly came crashing down.

I thought I was strong. But I wasn’t nearly as strong as I thought. A similar thing happens when many of us think about our righteousness and goodness. Most of us like to think of ourselves as “good people.” I was recently reading an article by Dr. Neal Mayerson, founder of the VIA Institute on Character. In his article, he noted what psychologists refer to as an “actor-observer bias.” This refers to the tendency that we all have to excuse our immoral behavior by appealing to circumstantial reasons that we had to act the way we did. In other words, we think we’re good. But we’re not nearly as good as we think. And when we are confronted with our own immorality, we try minimalize and rationalize it.

The “actor-observer bias” comes out in our text from this weekend from Luke 10 when an expert in the law approaches Jesus with a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25)? Rather than responding to his query directly, Jesus instead prods this so-called “expert” to answer his own question. And so the expert does. He gives his take on the requirements for eternal life. You must “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Jesus is impressed: “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). Notably, the Greek word for “do” is in the present tense, denoting a continuous action. So it’s not just that this expert in the law is to love God and his neighbor once. Or even regularly. It’s that he is to love God and his neighbor continually – as in constantly. And no matter how highly the expert in the law might think of himself, this is something he cannot do. This expert in the law may think he is good. But he’s not nearly as good as he thinks. Indeed, Jesus’ subsequent parable makes this sobering fact all too clear.

In His Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus relays the story of a man who is mobbed and robbed as he is traveling the steep trail which leads down the side of a mountain from Jerusalem to Jericho. Indeed, in the first century, this road was well known as a haunt for thieves and thugs. Being beaten unconscious and left for dead, a priest passes by and sees this man, clearly in need of assistance. But probably due to concerns for ritual cleanliness – for, according to Old Testament law, to touch a dead person would render one ceremonially “unclean” for a whole week – he passes the man by. The same thing happens with a Levite, also probably out of concerns for ritual cleanliness. It is a Samaritan – a person from a nationality despised by the Jews – who stops and helps this man.

In our day, we like to think of ourselves as the Samaritan. “Surely!” we think to ourselves, “If I someone half-dead on the side of the road, I would help.” But alas, this is merely our own “actor-observer bias” rearing its head. If you don’t believe me, consider these scenarios:

  • Have you ever failed to stop to help someone with car trouble because you were in a hurry?
  • Have you ever not picked up the phone because your caller ID told you who the person on the other end of the line was and you didn’t feel like talking to them?
  • Have you ever lied and told a panhandler, “I don’t have any change” simply because you didn’t want to get into a discussion with them?

If you have ever done any of these things – or a whole host of other similar things – then perhaps you are not as helpful as you think you are.

Finally, when we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we are called to think of ourselves not as the Samaritan, but as the priest and the Levite. Helmut Thielicke, the rector of the University of the Hamburg in the 60’s and 70’s, explains the parable like this: “The point of the parable is that we should identify ourselves with the priest and the Levite and repent” (The Waiting Father, 167).

So who, then, is the Good Samaritan if he is not us? The early church fathers thought he was Jesus. Origen says unequivocally, “The Samaritan was Christ” (Homilies on Luke). How did they arrive at such a conclusion? They knew that all of us failed to continuously love God and our neighbor. Thus, only Jesus can play the part of the Samaritan. This does not mean, however, that we are not invited to follow in our Savior’s footsteps. Jesus’ admonition at this end of His parable, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) makes this clear enough. We are called to love our neighbor by being a neighbor. We are called to help others.

So be a neighbor to someone in need today. After all, before you were called to become a neighbor to someone else, Christ became your neighbor on the cross.

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