A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.
-Luke 10:30-33 (NIV)
When Corpus Christi Police Senior Officer Richard Olden arrived at a bank to answer a call, he was pretty positive he was responding to a joke. The call, after all, was that there was a man trapped in an ATM. Trapped. In an ATM.
Obviously, a joke.
He wasn’t the only one to think so. When he arrived on scene, he found a series of handwritten notes that had apparently come out of the receipt slot of the ATM. The notes were all some variation on this theme: Please help. I'm stuck in here and don’t have my phone. Please call my boss at 210-XXX-XXXX. One bank customer finally took one of the notes seriously enough to call the police, but based on the number of notes laying around it was clear that several other customers had assumed, like Richard, that it was an elaborate prank.
Richard was convinced, though, when he heard a voice coming from the ATM.
A contractor had been changing the lock on a small service room attached to the ATM when he accidentally locked himself inside. Having left his phone in his truck, all he could do was push notes through the slot and hope it wouldn’t take long for someone to take him seriously.
Unfortunately, it took three hours.
Officers were able to kick down the door and rescue the contractor, who wasn’t hurt and who understandably didn’t want to give his name. I’m glad he’s OK and all. What I’m wondering, though, is what I would have done if I was one of those customers. I mean, I get that it might be hard to believe someone could be stuck in an ATM. But you’d think that it wouldn’t take three hours to get some help.
I wonder how long the injured man in Jesus’ story laid by the roadside waiting for someone to save him. I wonder if he could even cry out for help. I wonder if he was conscious enough to feel frustration when two people who might be expected above most others to offer help not only refused but crossed the street to avoid him. They didn’t even alert someone else to his predicament. At least those customers at the bank had a reason for their disinterest. All we know about that priest and that Levite is that they had a massive failure of compassion. With no compelling reason not to help, they still crossed the street and passed by.
Yet, perhaps it’s not all that surprising. They’re neither the first nor the last to suffer compassion failure.
The punch line of Jesus’ parable, of course, is that the last person his hearers would expect to be compassionate is in fact the only one to show any compassion. That subversion of what’s expected confronts Jesus’ followers in every time and place with the moments when we’ve crossed the street to avoid getting involved when we should have been first on the scene with compassion. Even people who are religious, who identify themselves with God’s people and imagine themselves as rather good, generous, caring people, can find themselves crossing a street — or not answering a phone, or avoiding a conversation, or inventing an excuse, or creating a justification — to escape taking responsibility for those in need.
Sometimes it’s because we don’t trust the person in need. It’s true that sometimes people want help on their terms, and theirs alone. It’s true that they can take advantage of our generosity. Neither of those things, of course, means that there is no need present. When we’re honest, we might admit that doubting the person is just a convenient way to side step the responsibility to help. Perhaps you can best help in a different way. Perhaps you can take the opportunity to get to other needs that are more basic, but maybe going overlooked.
Certainly, when appropriate we can expect those we help to take responsibility for themselves. Look at helping as a way to give people breathing room so that they can heal, or improve their situation, or make some changes in their lives. We do no one a favor when we make them dependent upon us. We should, in collaboration with those we help, come to an agreement about how long the help will be for and what the landmarks on their way to self-sufficiency look like.
Sometimes we cross to the other side of the street simply because the need seems too big for us alone. It threatens to suck us in and drag us down. It will require more energy, more resources, and more involvement than we feel that we can muster. Just recall that the Good Samaritan — the guy who helps — in Jesus’ parable doesn’t do it all himself either. He has somewhere to be, after all. Commitments that can’t be disregarded. So he helps as he can with emergency first aid and getting the injured man off the side of the road and to an inn. But he can’t stay, and so on he travels — after first getting the innkeeper involved and leaving some money.
Never forget that each of us is only one part of the church. Others have resources that we don’t have, expertise that is beyond us, opportunities and contacts we’ll never have. None of us is self-sufficient. This is why it takes the whole church to give presence to Jesus in the world. When you’ve done what you can do, bring in someone else. In this way, we can more adequately be neighbors to those in need while showing more completely the presence of Christ in our communities.
Note, too, that the guy promises to stop back by. Needing for the moment to hand off responsibility to the innkeeper doesn’t mean that he sees his connection to this man ending. Yours doesn’t either. When you’ve hit the limits of your expertise, resources, time or energy, you can certainly bring in others with a clear conscience. But check back to see how the situation has changed. Continue to pray, to remember those in need, and to believe God does amazing things through the combined efforts of his people.
The story arises out of a question: “Who is my neighbor?” But it changes the question in the process. By the time Jesus answers the question it’s not about those other people who might or might not be neighbors. It’s about us, and whether we’ve been acting as neighbors or not toward people in need.
They’re there. And it’s no joke.