I love what Laura Schroff writes about loving others in her book The Invisible Thread. In reflecting on a chance encounter she had with a street kid in New York City that grew into the most important, longest-lasting relationship in her life, she writes: “If love is the greatest gift of all, and I believe it is, then the greatest privilege of all is to be able to love someone else.”
I had a chance encounter recently in Saudi Aurora. It was a snow-filled Sunday evening in April as I returned home from a meeting across town. The meeting had gone very long and my friend and I decided to leave before it ended, which was perfect timing because I got to meet Betty and learn how poorly I embrace the privilege of loving.
As I was nearing home, a woman off in the distance started waving me down through the snowy haze. I could see before I pulled up to her, this woman was hysterical. I stared at her with apprehension as she begged me for help through the tinted car window. I just wanted to get into the warmth of my cozy apartment and relax for the night before starting another busy week. But I had resolved earlier that day to get out of my rut. Overwhelmed with serving clients at work and opening the community garden for the season my perspective on our mission in Saudi Aurora had narrowed. Things were getting mundane, everything was scheduled weeks in advance, there wasn’t much risk-taking or adventure, and the true purpose–loving and living sacrificially for our community–had all but vanished.
Betty looked like an adventure, a drugged-up, homeless one. Besides, she said her mom’s place was just around the corner (it wasn’t). So I overlooked my ‘better’ judgment and made space in the front seat for this stranger to enter my safety zone. I was sure that I was about to be knifed, sexually violated, or both. But I played it cool, praying a bit. Betty ripped off her tiny gloves and placed her hands next to the car’s heating vents. Then she started screaming and crying that she had been living in her storage unit (there is a huge storage lot across the street from our apartment). There was an unpleasant smell filling the car I had just cleaned that day.
Betty was so far beyond reason when I found her, I wasn’t sure what would get through to her. I was becoming fearful that I’d never get her calmed down long enough to figure out how to get her out of the car. After her hands thawed and she took a few deep breaths, she finally told me a street name a couple miles east. As I drove, Betty went into a tirade about her fiancé and how she caught him with another woman, describing their love life with a whole lot of other unmentionable details that I, well, won’t mention. By this point, I was certain that this road was leading me nowhere but, despite the indefinite duration of this voyage, I knew Betty was safe. Betty was just someone who lived a messy life. I don’t know if it was her own fault that her life was in shambles, if circumstances beyond her control changed her course, or some combination. I was beginning to feel for her and appreciate her slurred speech. She told me about her recent stay at Alicia’s hospital and asked me about my personal life, which I hesitated to answer but, again, overlooked my better judgment. The smell didn’t bother me as much now.
As I drove and listened to Betty ramble on about her messed up life interspersed with confusing driving instructions, it dawned on me that she might be searching for a large apartment complex where several friends and clients live. I headed that way and turned into the labyrinth parking lot; Betty and I stared with wonder at all the identical buildings. She had no clue. Suddenly, she pointed to a parked vehicle and yelled, “There’s my mom’s truck!” It wasn’t a truck but I stopped. Betty opened the door and exchanged yells with someone inside a building. (She was no more sober than when I first met her.) Eventually, she was allowed to enter the warm building and, I hope, find some semblance of ‘home’ and healing. Then Betty was gone, and I drove back to my comfortable home, safe from the cold.
Thinking about what just happened, I remembered a famous story about eternal life. A first century expert in Jewish law asks a popular rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, what we must do to gain eternal life. Jesus recognizes the man’s expertise by asking how he interprets the law on this subject. The expert answers that we must love God with our whole heart and love our neighbor as yourself. Jesus affirms this interpretation and congratulates the expert, saying anyone who follows it will truly live. The expert wasn’t satisfied at the implications of these laws and probed further, trying to construct a partition between ‘neighbors’ and ‘non-neighbors’. “But who is my neighbor?” he asks. Jesus responds to this question with the classic story of the “Good Samaritan.”
The Good Samaritan. A Jewish traveler is attacked, stripped, beaten, and left for dead by bandits. Two religious leaders come along the traveler laying there and skirt by him without getting too close. Then a man from a despised tribe, a Samaritan, comes along and shows mercy on this poor traveler. To Jews of that day, Samaritans were rebels against God’s people, inbred mutts of conquered nations, debaucherous idol worshipers, and second-class citizens whose clothes and food were off limits for any Jew wishing to remain pure. Jews wouldn’t even travel through Samaritan territory in fear they might need to rely on their hospitality during a voyage. The Jews and Samaritans had barriers. Yet this Samaritan dismounts his ride and, with care, bandages the beaten traveler and carries him to a hotel, paying for his recovery, later returning to visit the victim. Everyone listening to the story knew who Jesus intended to identify as the “neighbor.”
Jesus portrays someone I curse as my neighbor. He would not allow the expert in religious law to insert a division labeling some people as ‘neighbors’ and others as ‘outsiders’. He said “to love your neighbor as yourself” means to proactively love everyone as if they are your own, even if they despise us as the Jews did the Samaritans.
As Laura Schroff wrote, we have this amazing privilege (and duty if you read the BIble) to love other people who are different than us and who don’t or can’t love us back or first. This is the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s no easy or natural task; it takes everything. Let me share a few quick points about ‘neighbor’-loving that stung me after my Betty-encounter:
1 – To love someone like a neighbor, you have to open yourself to being hurt by him or by others. The road was dangerous and bandits were near, but the Good Samaritan dismounted his donkey, turning his back to the danger so he could bandage this victim’s wounds. His focus was on the broken human, not the dangers that encircled him if he stopped and not on how this bleeding man might get him dirty. The Good Samaritan shows us that security and comfort is not a relevant factor in service. Our task is to love our neighbor.
2 – To love someone like a neighbor, you have to go out of your way to love him. Samaritans and Jews didn’t travel on the same roads. This Samaritan was traveling on a road that promised he would encounter people different than himself, people who gave him no reason to love them and every reason to hate them. It might require him to show mercy on people who despised him or even beg them to come to his rescue. The Good Samaritan left his home and his own rut to travel the path that his enemies walked; he sought to break the divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
3 – To love someone like a neighbor, you have to go above and beyond what is expected or reasonable. It might have been reasonable to give some help, to walk a mile; but the Good Samaritan goes the extra mile. He took step after step with the traveler making sure he was back on the road to health.
4 – To love someone like a neighbor, you have to give your time, your money, your possessions, your provisions and supplies, and even your donkey. Loving someone as your neighbor is never on your terms, it’s always on his terms. You can’t plan on stumbling upon someone who is suffering, but you can prepare for it. Whatever you have, be ready to give it to your neighbor as he has need; that’s the motto of the Good Samaritan. He put his enemy first and himself second.
5 – To love someone like a neighbor, you have to take time to know him. As long as you don’t know your neighbor (wherever he lives), you don’t have to love him; indeed, you cannot. You’re not loving anyone by ignoring them or trying to get rid of them as quick as possible. To love someone, you must walk next to him. Enter his life. We have to listen before we know how to love someone.
6 – To love someone like a neighbor, you have to come back again. The Good Samaritan didn’t just drop this traveler off at the next gas station. He got out of his car and made sure that the man was taken care of and, in a drastic promise, he says he’ll come back to make sure the man is headed toward eternal health. We can’t love like the Good Samaritan in a quick adventure; we have to stay connected and return to love some more. I think it’s called a relationship.
It’s a simple formula, to love like the Good Samaritan. But I feel convicted about how poorly I loved Betty on that snowy Sunday evening in April. I notice some barriers between her and I, and not a few uncomfortable prejudices and aversions. I’ll probably never see Betty again, but she reminded me of what it takes to love like a neighbor. And now I ask: Who do you love like the Good Samaritan?