Won't You Be Your Neighbor?
by Jesse Dukes
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” Luke 19:36-37
In a simple story in Luke 19, Jesus sets an incredible bar for what sort of standard we should apply to ourselves when it comes to considering how to live out the ethical command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In the story, a man is beaten, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road and the crux of the story centers on the different responses of three others who discover this broken and dying person in their path. The story ends with a choice for the listener… which of these three would you like to be? Who knew that Jesus started the whole “choose your character” meme long before Tik-Tok got ahold of it?
There’s a simple answer, because there’s an obvious good guy in the story and two obvious bad guys. No one hearing the story says, “I’ve got dibs on the priest!! I want to be the guy who callously ignores the suffering of others!!” But if you’re like me, the uncomfortable truth is so many times I have been that guy!
Sure, I’ve been the Good Samaritan many times… but still so often I’ve been the priest and the Levite passing to the other side of the road to avoid getting entangled in the mess of someone else’s suffering.
I’ve walked passed the homeless man on the street.
I’ve casually avoided the struggling single mom in the grocery store.
I’ve politely ignored the lonely elderly woman staring off into space in the nursing home.
I’ve looked the other way while the exhausted retail worker is being shouted at and harassed by frustrated customers.
And I’ve definitely quickly changed the channel or scrolled past the hundreds of thousands of images and stories of people suffering and in need around me that I encounter online and in media… not because I want to be callous, not because I don’t care, but simply because I always think, “I would love to help you, I would love to care more, I would love to be a loving neighbor to you but I’m currently drowning in my current list of “neighbors” that I have to care for.”
I’ve got three kids and a wife and aging parents and a brother and sisters and in-laws and nieces and friends and co-workers and church members and next door neighbors… and it feels like the LAST thing that I need is another “neighbor” with more needs to add to that list.
And if I’m completely honest, most of the time, just trying to keep up with that list leaves me feeling broken and tired and robbed of joy and stripped of comfort. And then I look around and see so many people just passing by me, looking the other way, heads down and focused on their own list of troubles and cares… too busy and preoccupied to help or even notice me and I cynically begin to wonder, “Where is MY Good Samaritan?! Will anybody notice and help me?!”
Which leads me to the all important question I’d ask you to consider today: What do you do when you come upon YOU beaten, naked, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road of life?
Don’t be in a rush to answer, just sit with the question for a while. Scroll up and look at the picture at the top and just look on the image for a while… is there any part of you that feels like that?
Is there a part of you facedown in the dirt… beaten up by life?
Has one part of you been robbed of precious hope, stripped of dignity, or crushed by grief?
Is that part struggling to survive and on the brink of death?
Look, I apologize if you weren’t prepared to confront this in this moment... maybe you’re like… “Bro, I was just looking an easy read to take my mind off of the world falling apart!”… but don’t miss the fact that in this moment you are actually in the heart of the story: you have come upon the man or the woman in the road and they need your help… the question is “Which of these three will you be?”
In the story, two of the three characters take the path of avoidance. We don’t get any window into their thought processes beyond, “when he saw him he passed by on the other side.” And if the story holds true, what’s important to understand is that means that there is a double dose of energy and experience that in this moment is encouraging you to do the same and look away, disengage, disregard, drown out, ignore, avoid, numb out, neglect, or overlook this reality of the broken and beaten you.
For me this force comes in so many different forms. Sometimes I avoid by being judgmental of this part of myself: You were such an idiot. You got yourself into this mess and you’re getting what you deserve. If you had known better, this would never have happened. This allows me to self-righteously disengage and even heap more abuse on that broken part.
Other times the energy to avoid my broken self manifests in the form of sudden desires to do tasks or projects that will occupy my mind and body. It’s time to clean my closet! The garage needs organizing! I’ve got tons of work to catch up on! I need to return that lamp I bought from Home Goods! It’s all of a sudden time to start my New Year’s Reading Plan! This allows me to look and feel busy and preoccupied… and thus unable to help, or even pay attention to that poor, pathetic part of me that is suffering.
Then there’s the numbing variation of this energy, where I make the bad feelings go away by finding quick, easy, sources of “good vibes”. This can be through “toxic positivity” (see Unikitty from Lego Movie), getting high on media (movies, tv, news, social media, music [even worship music], or video games), or good old fashioned substance use (people use everything from food to fentanyl). These all allow me to drown out all of the painful feelings that the broken part of me elicits and go on my merry way. But when you numb out your feelings, or tune out the bad vibes of shame, powerlessness, grief and anger… you also mute the capacity the feel the pull of empathy, mercy, hope, courage and compassion.
Remember, there’s another character in the story. And there is another side of your own character that doesn’t want to look away and avoid, but that wants to come near and help.
"But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him." Luke 10:33-34
What would it look like for you to set aside your inner priest or levite, and choose to play the role of Good Samaritan to that broken part of yourself? To stop seeing your own pain and suffering with eyes of judgement or shame, but instead to look on it with compassion and a resolve to bring help and healing? To commit to a process of healing, no matter how much it costs?
Earlier in the story Jesus affirmed that the path to inheriting eternal life was found in the commands to “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 your neighbor as yourself.” (v. 27) But how can you love God with all of your heart if pieces of it have been broken and neglected? How can you love God with all of your mind if a part of it is crippled with anxiety and fear? How can you love God with all of your strength if you are disconnected and hating the very body in which your strength is found? And how can you love God with all of your soul if your spirit is filled with bitterness and unforgiveness?
I wonder if we don’t all have such a challenging time consistently loving our neighbors because we have not truly learned to love ourselves.
Please don’t miss what it is that I’m saying… no matter how great your intentions are, no matter how big your heart is, no matter great your passion is, no matter how deep your desire is to heal the world and be loving and protect the innocent and the vulnerable… your ability to love God and/or love people and will never exceed your capacity to love the most broken, neglected and shameful parts of yourself.
In fact, if you ignore your own hurt, and go on a quest to help others, you will not only NOT help them… you will end up hurting people in the process. One of the truest truths that I’ve discovered is that “Hurt people, hurt people” and I have yet to find anyone who is exempt from this.
Hurt pastors, hurt people.
Hurt therapists, hurt people.
Hurt police officers, hurt people.
Even hurt presidents, hurt people.
The greater the power of the hurt person, the greater the potential for them to hurt others.
You know I look around today and there are so many hurting people. It feels like the past year alone has just been a series of cascading tragedies that doesn’t seem prepared to stop at any time. I look around and the road to Jericho is piled high with the bodies of so many victims who have been waylaid by robbers, thieves and thugs, and its so tempting to run down the path of blame/hate/vengeance or denial/diversion/avoidance… but neither of those paths actually do anything to bind up the wounds of the broken and put them on the path to healing… and the first step on the path to healing is committing to your own process.
It took a really long time for me to begin that process, and I’m still very much in the middle of the journey. But it began when I was a 15 year old kid who was trying his darnedest to avoid the pain and brokenness inside of him, but couldn’t keep it all hidden and my mess came spilling out in a way that I could no longer conceal. My deepest fear was that if someone saw the real me, the part that was broken, beat up, naked and face down in the mud… that in disgust, they would walk right past and abandon me. But the change happened when someone saw my true condition of hurt and brokenness and instead of experiencing rejection and condemnation I experienced mercy and compassion.
That moment was a turning point in my life... but I realize now that I prolonged so much of my own healing journey by refusing to recognize the depth and severity of my own wounds and brokenness. I was (and often still am) so eager to try and help others… that I was jumping over my responsibility to my own healing and wholeness.
The sad and painful truth is: Hurt people, hurt people… but the beautiful and liberating truth is that healed people, heal people.
So here’s my question to you: where does the healing need to begin in you?
Where are you still hurting?
Where are you stuck?
What are the fears that are controlling your right in this moment?
Where has your heart been broken?
And most importantly… would you like a compassionate neighbor to help you heal?