You’ll Move to Africa for Jesus, But You Won’t Help Me Move Across Town?

movingOkay, I know I’m sticking my foot into it now, ’cause I’m guilty of this most of the time myself. But how many times do we lay claim to a deep spirituality and a love for God yet turn a blind eye to the difficulties of other people around us? In my case, it looks more like “sure, I’d love to sit with you and chat about deep theological issues, but if you don’t mind, please don’t trouble me with your messy life.”

You know that story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible? It’s a bit troubling to me. I don’t like it, because it places demands on me that are inconvenient. But here’s the bottom line: if you want a real relationship with the Eternal God, it will only go as far as your involvement with other people.

In that story, in Luke 10, a religious expert comes to Jesus and asks his advice. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Sounds heavy, but really the guy is just expressing the emptiness he’s feeling inside. He knew his Bible; he lived it as best he could. He was an expert. But something was still missing; he knew it, but he just didn’t know what it was. So he asks the guy who had become famous for his connection with Heaven, who’d healed all kinds of diseased and injured people, who’d set people free from dark forces in their lives. Surely, he would know. And Jesus, being the good Jewish rabbi that he was, turns the question back on the man: “What is written in the Torah; how do you read it?” And the man responds with the classic and correct answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “That’s right,” Jesus affirmed, “do this and you’ll have life.”

Standard Answers Won’t Do

But it was the standard answer the man knew his entire life. And it wasn’t enough. So he probes deeper, “but who is my neighbor?” Basically, I believe the man is asking Jesus to show him how to make it work. “What does this look like in real life? How am I supposed to do this?”

And then comes the famous parable. A man is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho and gets way-laid on the road by robbers. He’s beaten and left half dead on the side of the road. Two religious types, a priest and a Levite, walk by, see him laying there, and cross over to the other side of the street to avoid him. But a Samaritan sees him and has pity on him. He walks over to him, cleans his wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up, places him on his donkey and takes him to an inn where he pays the inn-keeper to care for him. Which of these acted as a neighbor to the beaten man? Obviously, the Samaritan. The point is simple enough, and the religious expert gets it.

Catch the Details

But there is some really rich subtlety in this story we might easily miss. Jesus describes the beaten traveler as “half dead”, and I’m struck by his choice of words. I think they’re deliberate. After all, the original question he was asked concerned obtaining eternal life. So the word-play involving life and death would be striking. And our impression of the two men in the story who walked by, ignoring the injured man, would naturally be one of revulsion. “How cold-hearted. How hypocritical. And they call themselves ‘religious,’ that priest and Levite. That wounded man may be half dead, but those two guys are completely dead inside. The Samaritan, on the other hand, taking compassionate action to help the man, now he is fully alive, fully in-tune with his humanity. He’s the one with ‘true religion’; he’s obviously got a clue about what true godly life is all about.” In Jesus’ deliberate choice of words, we can already see what is involved in “inheriting eternal life.” It’s not about what happens to us after we die; it’s not just about life in the “age to come.” It’s about the quality of the life we live in the here and now. We can go around as religious zombies, dead to those around us, or we can live a rich, fulfilling life involved with others. When God’s life invades us, it will change the way we interact with people.

And look at what that Samaritan man actually does. He sees the beaten victim and is immediately moved by compassion. In the story, this is the first reference to any kind of emotion, any type of personal connection with the robbed man. The Samaritan is emotionally engaged in the situation and with his fellow human being. Next, he cleans and bandages the man’s wounds, he touches the man. He gets his hands dirty. He is now physically as well as emotionally involved in the man’s plight. Then he puts the man on his donkey and takes him to a place where he can recover. That means he has to walk. He gave up his own comfort to help the man; he readily puts up with the inconvenience. And finally, he even pays the man’s medical bills. This Samaritan was fully engaged in the situation — emotionally, physically, materially and financially. He knew what life was all about. He had what that original seeker was missing.

Full Impact

The full impact of this can be seen when we go back to the answer Jesus elicited from the religious leader. What is needed to participate in the divine life? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength … and love your neighbor as yourself.” In answer to the man’s follow-up question, “But how do I do this?”, Jesus shows that loving God is inseparable from loving people. If we are supposed to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, then those are exactly the same qualities we must use to involve ourselves with others. Like the Samaritan, we must love others with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. That is what loving God is really about.

To put it another way, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but closes his heart against him, how can the love of God be in him?” … “If anyone says ‘I love God’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. … Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 3:17; 4:20-21).

Interestingly, in the Gospel account, Jesus turns the religious man’s question around. Instead of asking “who is my neighbor,” we should be asking, “who can I be a neighbor to?” You can’t claim to have a deep sense of spirituality or a great love for God while at the same time ignoring the needs of people around you. To love God, you must love your neighbor, you must be fully engaged with those around you — emotionally, physically, materially and financially: with your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength. In a word, it’s about relationships. It’s about real human-to-human involvement. If we want a more meaningful life that only a closer walk with God can bring, that’s what we must do. “Now go, and do likewise,” Jesus tells us.

So the next time someone asks you to help them move, you may just have to double-check your initial reaction. “Help you move? Of course I will.”

Better a little inconvenience …

Michael brought home a puppy the other day.  Great.  Now we have three dogs.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, he’s cute enough and loveable enough. But he’s a handful.  He chases Zack and Clarice† around, so full of energy.  And you always gotta keep an eye on him until he’s trained, making sure he’s not underfoot in the kitchen, or when you’re walking (anywhere).  Making sure he’s not chewing on power cords or pooping in the corner.  Not that he does those things (much); Michael is very watchful of him.

The past two days, though, Michael has had to be out all day making out of town trips, and I’ve had the pleasure of bearing some brunt of the watching responsibilities.  But my work schedule is less flexible, and I’ve had to put the pup in his crate while I’m at work.  I feel so guilty, so worried, about it, and I rush home for lunch, stay a little longer, and come home a bit earlier at the end of the day just so the little tyke won’t be boxed in too long.  Once at work, I’m fine; I become absorbed in my tasks and don’t fret much until it’s nearing time for me to make my stops home.  And on the way home, my mind races with images of him locked up, wimpering, wanting to play or having to go potty, and whether he’s been holding it too long or whether he’s gone in the crate.  How horrible for the little guy. What if I were to just leave him out, close the bedroom door? Then he’d be free to stretch his legs, chase Zack for company, grab some water or munch on some dry food for those 3-4 hour stretches.  He’s learned to use the doggy-door in the bedroom, so he could go outside if he wanted.

But that’s the problem.  He’s still too young to be left unattended. Zack and Clarice are fine by themselves; they can be trusted.  They’ve learned the rules and know how to be safe and well-behaved.  But little Rascal could chew on those cords, get dangerously caught in something, or if he goes out, might be mistaken by a hawk for a juicey rabbit.  And today I realized that simple truth.  Better to inconvenience him a little, better that he be a little uncomfortable, than to allow him to be at risk or endangered. 

And with that thought came that same nagging sense that there was a spiritual principle to be gleaned there.  How many times have I been “inconvenienced”, or things did not work out the way I’d been praying?  When I felt like I’d been left in a box unattended or fogotten?  How many times had God not given me what I’d requested, when I wanted it, and how I described it?  Why were some things slow in coming, seemingly put on hold for a time, even indefinitely?  What’s wrong with God?  Why isn’t he making things easier for me?

The connection seems obvious, doesn’t it?  And sure, there may be other reasons things don’t work out the way I pray. “You have not … because you ask amiss ….”  Maybe I’m simply not supposed to have or do certain things, and I’m just too obtuse to recognize it yet.  Or maybe there are other things on my plate that I haven’t attended to yet, and my request would be just one more thing to become neglected.

I do not believe God is stingy or begruding of good things.  “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).  I’m sure his heart, like mine toward Rascal and the other dogs, is to lavish his love and affection, and not to withhold any good thing from me.  I’m confident he is not trying to make my life difficult just to build character or something.  I have to believe that when he withholds things from me, either for a short time or permanently, it is for my own good. 

If my request is not some frivolous or selfish desire, then perhaps I’m simply not mature enough to handle it yet. Maybe if granted, it would do me more harm than good.  Maybe I’m not ready.  In that case, withholding the thing is an act of love on God’s part.  So perhaps instead of whining about the delay, I ought to be looking for the reason, the area of my life that needs development, growth, or improvement.  Maybe I should take a good, hard look at my life and make sure the groundwork is laid, that I’ve made space for the thing I’m requesting, that I’m at a place where I can handle it, take care of it, be responsible with it. 

I believe God wants to free me from my constraints, wants to let me out to play.  So when I’m feeling stuck in a crate, the variable must be with me.  Am I ready to come out yet?  What must I do to become ready?

My puppy Rascal is energetic, eager to explore new things, and wants to play all the time.  But he isn’t mature enough to handle the liberties and privileges of the other dogs.  And until that time, better a little inconvenience than to place him within harm’s reach.

Just something to consider …

Dogs’ names have been changed to protect the innocent.