Just ordinary people...
At about 3:20 a.m. on March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old manager of a bar returned to her quiet residential neighbourhood, parked her car, and began to walk the 30 metres through the car park to her front door. Noticing a man at the far end of the car park, she paused. When he started toward her, she ran but the man caught and stabbed her. She started screaming that she’d been stabbed; she screamed for help.
Lights went on in the building across the street. Windows opened. One man called out, "Leave that girl alone!"
The attacker shrugged and walked away. Windows closed and lights went out. The man returned and attacked Genovese again. She screamed again even louder. This time lots more windows opened and lots more lights went on. The assailant walked toward his car, leaving Ms. Genovese to crawl along the street to where she lived. Somehow, she managed to drag herself inside.
The attacker returned a third time, found Genovese and killed her.
During those three separate attacks over the course of 35 minutes, not one of Kitty Genovese’s neighbours tried to intervene. Worse than that, of the more than 30 people who saw at least one of the attacks and heard Genovese’s screams and pleas for help, not one of them even called the police. After much deliberation, and a phone call to a friend for advice, one man finally urged another neighbour to call authorities, which she did. Police arrived in two minutes, but by then, it was too late.
Interviewed afterward, the residents admitted sheepishly, "I didn’t want to get involved," or "I didn’t want my husband to get involved." Several couldn’t say why they hadn’t helped. Many of them said they’d been afraid to call but they couldn’t say why, within the safety of their own homes, they had been afraid to call the police – even anonymously.
What makes this story so shocking is that it’s true? Most people conclude that this kind of thing only happens in big, bad places like New York City. But when we look at this story carefully, we find that none of those who failed to respond to Kitty’s cries for help were bad people. They were ordinary people like you and me. They were people who never set out to deliberately break the law; were happily married; were proud of their children and grandchildren and their achievements; went to work at 8 every morning and came home in the evening and sat down to an evening meal and a bit of television before going to bed.
Some of them were probably regular worshippers at the local church. They were ordinary people who for some reason did nothing that night to save Kitty. Some said they didn’t want to get involved – but hey – we all say that sometimes. Most couldn’t explain why they behaved as they did.
Jesus tells a story very similar to this one. A man comes to him and asks Jesus, "What must I do to receive eternal life?" He didn’t need to ask this question at all because he knew the 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 neighbour as you love yourself."
Jesus said, "Do this and you will live."
The trouble is this is impossible to do. Our failure to love God with all that we are and have and to love others as we love ourselves are as clear as crystal. This command has always been a problem. It was a problem for the man who had approached Jesus. He wants Jesus to give a definition of who constitutes a neighbour, hoping that there are clearly some people to whom we have no obligation to love. That would make this command a lot easier to keep.
So, Jesus tells a story and as always, his story is about ordinary people caught up in a particular situation.
A man was travelling along the stretch of road between Jerusalem and Jericho. That was about 30 kilometres and was notorious for gangs of robbers who would wait to attack travellers who passed by. It came as no surprise to the hearers of this story when Jesus said that a man was attacked along this road. He was stripped, beaten, robbed and left to die on the side of the road. First a priest came along, saw the man and made a wide circle around the man and hurried on. Another man, a religious person, did the same thing – saw the man in the ditch and quickly walked on by.
I want to make the point that these men weren’t evil people. They were well meaning, good living, religious, normally caring and understanding people, well-respected – just ordinary people. If they were mean, lacking in morals, didn’t care at all about others, were selfish and unkind we would understand the reason why they would quickly walk past a person in need rather than stop. But two good living, well-meaning people – ordinary people just like those who ignored the cries of Kitty Genovese.
Can you see what Jesus is getting at in this story? He chose to include those two good-living and religious people in his story to highlight that cold-heartedness and lovelessness can be just as much a part of our lives. We behave like that too - ordinary people like us, like the man who quizzed Jesus. We don’t have to think too hard to recall times when we have been unkind, unloving and uncaring toward someone else. We may not have walked past someone lying on the road, naked and bleeding, but we have done the equivalent when we have lacked compassion and pity and looked the other way when someone has needed our help. Sometimes we have failed to do even the simplest and smallest things that might make a difference in someone else’s life.
Dan Rather recalls an eventful elevator ride in a large hotel: After having flown in late during the night, he was up early to go downstairs and make a speech before several thousand people. As he rode in elevator to the conference room, he felt everyone staring at him. He thought to himself, "Didn't any of these people's mothers teach them that it's rude to stare?"
The elevator soon reached the foyer and as it emptied, a woman gently took hold of his sleeve. "Mr. Rather," she says quietly, "I don't mean to intrude." She looks around, making sure no one else is listening. "I don't want this to be embarrassing. But your fly is unzipped, and a piece of your shirt is sticking out through it." She then smiled and walked off the elevator leaving Mr Rather to tidy up.
Often, it’s not just the big acts of kindness and compassion that make a difference in a person’s life, it’s the small things. On his way to work a man passed what appeared to be a street kid, not very old, clothes all wrinkled, hair unbrushed, carrying a McDonald’s cup of steaming coffee. "Hey, mister, you want some coffee", he said to the man as he walked past.
The man expecting there to be some catch said, "You’re very generous this morning. Why are you giving away your coffee? Is there something I can give you in return?" He wished he hadn’t said that because he left himself wide open for the inevitable request for money.
The young lad said, "Yeah, just give me a hug."
The boy wrapped his arms around him ever so tightly. The man was embarrassed and felt uneasy. People were starring. His embarrassment soon gave way to compassion and he wrapped his arms around the boy.
We don’t have to look too far to find people who are longing for some kind of human warmth – people in our family, among our friends and relatives, those in our neighbourhood, and there will always be those strangers looking for compassion and kindness. But you know as well as I do that, we are complete failures when it comes to reaching out to people with warmth and kindness. We might do it once but to do it consistently goes against our sinful nature.
The hero of Jesus’ story is a Samaritan, a stranger, a person who had a strong dislike for Jews. Perhaps "dislike" isn’t strong enough. "Hatred" would be better. But this didn’t stop the Samaritan from delaying his journey, going to the effort of bandaging the wounded man, taking him to a motel, spending two days wages and more if needed. He did all this even if it meant that he would be ridiculed by his friends for helping a Jew and become a social and religious outcast. This Samaritan wasn’t anyone significant – he was just an ordinary person, just an ordinary person who had an extraordinary amount of compassion and kindness.
Is this Samaritan a fool or a saint? Jesus asked the lawyer, "In your opinion, which one of these three acted like a neighbour toward the man attacked by the robbers?" The lawyer cannot bring himself to say "Samaritan", so he says, "The one who was kind to him." He knows the answer. He knows the truth. We do too. It’s just so hard to accept, and it seems easier to hide behind excuses.
Jesus was asked the question, "Who is my neighbour" but he isn’t the slightest bit interested in defining who our neighbour is. Rather he points out what kind of neighbours we are to be.
Neighbours who ignore boundaries and labels that separate people. Neighbours who let nothing stand in the way of compassion and love. Neighbours who are willing to be gracious – giving their love freely even though we might think the other person doesn’t deserve it. Neighbours who are willing to reach out to family members, friends, in fact anyone and like the man in the story give a hug – a hug of understanding, of compassion, of forgiveness of comfort.
This kind of neighbourliness isn’t just a once in a while thing when it suits us, it is the full-time work of the Christian. Jesus says to us, "You go, then, and do the same." "Don’t just talk about it, do it!"
That’s hard, really hard. If our eternal life depended on the way we carry out Jesus’ command, then without a doubt we would be doomed. This command of Jesus to "go and do" reminds us just how much we need Jesus who has shown to us what it really means to be a good Samaritan. He is the one who took the risk for us and gave himself over into the hands of his enemies and died on a cross. He was a true neighbour to us and soothe our wounds of sin and failure, especially our failure to really love others. He has paid the price for us to enter the bliss of eternal life.
He is neighbour to us and in an undeserved and unearned way gives us his love and forgives us, even though we are his enemies. He is truly our Good Samaritan.
But our faith in Jesus doesn’t excuse us from the need to love God and love our neighbour. It means taking action right here and now.
People get caught up in all kinds of things that turn their lives upside down. Will that person have a neighbour; will any person stop, soothe their wounds, and help them with an extravagant and lavish show of gracious love? Will the trouble in their lives be reversed by some caring person? Will that caring person be you or me?
There are people all around us who are half dead and lying in a ditch. Some are half-dead physically, others spiritually. They are powerless to do anything about rescuing themselves. God grant us the will and the love to truly be their neighbours.
God's Good News in The Parables of Jesus - Roger Ellsworth
Parables of Jesus - Daniel Kazemian
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Parables: The Greatest Stories Ever Told - White John
All the Parables of the Bible - Dr Herbert Lockyer
Hungry for More of Jesus - David Wilkerson
Stories Jesus Told - Greg Carey