Loving Your Neighbor; Stop, Look, Listen - Eighth Sunday of Luke

I’ve never liked needing anything from anyone. Whether it’s emotional support or financial support, being unable to care for myself is pretty shameful and even embarrassing.

After all, being described as “needy” isn’t a good thing.

We are taught that need (or at least being perceived as needy) is something that we should avoid at all costs, that we should be able to do things for ourselves.

Maybe it’s an outgrowth of American rugged individualism, the ideal of the independent settler living off the land. That aside, I think we can agree that we should be able to do many things for ourselves, especially when it comes to fulfilling our own obligations and responsibilities.

It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to expect my neighbors to pay for my daughter to go to preschool, nor would it be appropriate for me to offer to pay for their son’s preschool. These things are our respective responsibilities, and we should expect people to “carry their own load,” as St. Paul says (Gal. 6:5).

I should be able to govern my life and my responsibilities well enough to meet basic needs and expectations, and so should my neighbor.

Need is a real thing, and there’s no shame in it. We all need help at some point, but it can be difficult to determine when (and how) we should help. Are there times we should hold back, and let people struggle? Are there times we should step in and help, even when others don’t want our help?

This dynamic, drawing good boundaries with others is a difficult aspect of the Christian life, and honestly, it is one that I struggle with every day.

I regularly ask myself:

To what extent is my unwillingness to help a person based in Christian love and good boundaries? To what extent am I just being stingy? To what extent does my discomfort with my own need prevent me from having pity on person who is merely expressing her own need?

The tension of the call to care for our brothers and sisters while also not being consumed by them is difficult to navigate. It even appears in St. Paul’s writing: while he tells us that we are to carry our own load, he also encourages Christians to “bear one another’s burdens” only a few verses earlier (Gal. 6:2)!

So which is it St. Paul?

Rather than contradicting himself, maybe St. Paul is giving us guidance by distinguishing between the loads we bear on our own and the burdens we bear for each other

This Sunday, Christ will tell us the story of the Good Samaritan. When a man asks Christ, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” Luke 10:30-35

It would be too easy to deduce from this story, then, that the neighborly thing to do is give a person in need anything that he wants, and then go the extra mile and continue to provide for him until…well, indefinitely.

The Samaritan’s actions are far more specific than simply throwing money at the injured man to get him the help he needs. The Samaritan stopped and assessed the situation, knowing that he had to meet particular needs in a particular order.

The man is bleeding and injured when the Samaritan finds him, so naturally, the first thing that needs to be addressed is the man’s wounds. The Samaritan dresses them with oil and wine, bandaging him and putting him on his own beast because he can’t walk. The Samaritan read the situation properly, understanding the man’s actual and pressing need.

He didn’t just walk up to him and say, “You look like you’ve had a rough day, here’s a denarii; get yourself something to eat…and don’t waste it on booze.”

Rather, he meets the actual need that is in front of him.

Too often, we throw mere band-aids at people who are in much greater need than we realize. Or we encounter people whose needs are simply different than we might expect (or want!).

Some argue that we shouldn’t give money to people who beg in the streets because they might use it to foster an addiction. But do we pause to consider if they are looking for a place to stay for the night? 

And how much help is it really when we throw a McDonald’s gift card at someone because we “don’t want to enable them?” How does that address a person’s joblessness or homelessness?

Whose needs are we meeting in those instances? Theirs? Or our own need to appear as religious and helpful people?

Instead of loving being present with a person as they bear their load, or stepping in to bear their burden, we resort to half measures that primarily satisfy our needs. 

We won’t take the time to help someone actually get back on their feet, nor are we interested enough to sit beside someone and ask for their name.  Instead, we quickly hand over a gift card and get back to our day, satisfied by a job well done.

And I don’t think that this tendency only applies to our encounters with the poor. We may try to throw band-aids at the people in our communities (and even in our homes) just as readily, simply because we are so afraid to stop and assess the actual need in front of us.

Does my daughter really need me to teach her how to express her feelings nicely when she doesn’t get to go to the park, or does she need me to be empathic, to attempt to understand her pain and simply say, “I get it, honey. It’s okay to be disappointed?” Perhaps both. But I won’t know unless I stop and assess the situation.

Everyone has their own needs, and there are things that we are each responsible for dealing with on our own. Each of us is called to bear our own load (our thoughts, our feelings, our time, our resources, our relationships), but there are also many circumstances in which we must bear one another’s burdens, because sometimes there are “robbers” and they beat the snot out of you.

Because sometimes we’re the ones laying half dead by the side of the road. 

But a good neighbor doesn’t rush to offer any particular kind of help, nor to offer generic and unhelpful aid; a good neighbor stops and asks, “What does this person really need? Is this a load that they are struggling with, and do I simply need to be empathic? Or is this a burden that is crushing them?”

I’m not sure I always am capable of telling the difference, but I know that I rarely stop and try to figure it out. But a good neighbor, like the Good Samaritan, tries to understand what the real problem is and does all she can to support others in the way they need.

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.