Two Truths, Two Errors
The “Good Samaritan” parable is a sound basis for all Christian ethics. Jesus’ story teaches that every person is my neighbor, even those whom society says are unworthy. Christians are not allowed to hate any human being, even enemies of Jesus.
These two truths - that everyone is my neighbor and that I must love my enemies - provide enough difficult moral work for a lifetime by themselves, no other moral tasks added. Just as I cannot save myself from my broken nature, so I can only make progress in love with God’s grace.
Yet there are two modern errors that might distract from the goal of loving better: false proximity, and helping the ethical masochist.
Before global communication, a good ethical rule for average Christians was “if you know about a problem, then it is your problem.” Before we all read daily international news, our “news feed” was almost entirely limited to personal experience.
Today I know immediately when disaster strikes the Philippines. And the danger with this information is that it is now easier for me to see the great pain in the Philippines than the pain just next door. And who else is there to see that pain next door, not printed in the international news, if not me? My check to the Red Cross during a global disaster is good, but I might be able to do more good for the less well-known suffering of the family down the street.
It used to be easier to know people we met personally. It was almost impossible to know about a person without meeting them. Jesus’ parable assumes that this is true. Yet now it is far simpler to see the Samaritan by the side of the road who has caught media attention than to see a Samaritan without access to a microphone.
While not belittling tragedies, it is also important to remember that a typhoon makes good television, but a late mortgage payment doesn’t, and never will.
All humanity deserves my support, but those who are close to me in terms of my responsibilities as family member, parishioner, citizen, and physical neighbor must be my first priorities. These are the people for whom I can provide a kind of care that gets me involved in their struggles physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The Good Samaritan did not just give money. In response to that part of the parable, my personal practice of the discipline of charity has been to put my money where my prayers, mind, and body can also go.
Helping an ethical masochist
Another mistake I might make is empowering pain through my helpfulness. Waving the banner of the Good Samaritan, I could turn the sinner who is happy in his sin into the injured man. You see, the sinful man must sometimes be left in his struggle. The ethical masochist is the person who cannot be healed, because they are the “robber” - beating and cheating their own souls. I cannot bind the wounds of a man who is reopening his wounds as I work, who rejects the salve and bandage in favor of aggravating his spiritual wounds.
In extreme cases a “good Samaritan” may have to call the police or social workers to stop serious self-harm that is the result of mental illness or addictions. Yet, mostly, we must ask if the sinner is willing to repent or wants our help, and if they say “no,” we must move on. We must allow them their freedom. Organizations like the Salvation Army give basic services every day (food, shelter, and clothing) to those who will not help themselves, and this basic aid is very good. Such local charities deserve our support. Yet sometimes, offering more means offering too much.
It is simply true that acts of charity makes us feel good about ourselves. But that good feeling isn’t a perfect guide. Depending on it could leave us smiling and patting our own backs, while actually harming the recipients of our supposed “charity.” We should not “help” a “man by the side of the road” as he digs his ditch deeper or makes his pain greater.
Nobody is beyond help by his or her nature, but some people make choices that should be honored. Healing cannot be compelled.
Divine Love allowed humanity to sin and take the consequences of that sin. Love gave a way out of ruin, but did not force any human to choose that way. Neither should I.
Love does not ignore the physical neighbor for the on-line, televised tragedy. And love does not enable harm in the name of service. Everyone is my neighbor and everyone deserves love, but loving any human being requires knowledge, relationship, and wisdom. Just as we cannot assume that someone does not deserve our support because they are a “Samaritan” (or any category of human that we don’t like), so we cannot assume that the “support” they need will be our money or care.
Because mercy isn’t sterile, clean, or just stuffed with feeling. Mercy isn’t as easy as a donate-button click or as universal, absolute affirmation. Sometimes - oftentimes - mercy is dirty, uncomfortable, painful, and severe.