The Priest and the Levite - A Lesson in Familiarity

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priest, levite, Good Samaritan

That old truism - familiarity breeds contempt - is just as accurate to our giving as it is in any other area of our lives. Remember the last time you saw the commercials promoting an organization fighting against starvation in underdeveloped countries? Did you give? No. Well, I didn’t either.

Now let’s be fair. There are many reasons for not giving to a charity, even to help starving children. It could be that the nonprofit promoting its fight against hunger has a 1-star rating on Charity Navigator and spends over 70% of its total budget on administration. That would be a reason to say no. However, the fact is that the use of starving children in the organization’s promotional ad made it less likely that people, who turned away from it without giving, will give to any other organization serving the starving people of the world.

The more often an individual is exposed to need without reacting compassionately to that need, the harder the individual becomes to need in general.

Early in my nonprofit career, I had the opportunity to visit eastern block European countries. Romania was a common destination because we had orphanages that we helped there. On my visits, it was not uncommon to check in at the government orphanages to talk with the workers and bring gifts to the children living in these institutions. On one of my first visits to the government-run orphanages, I had the opportunity to sit down with the facility director.

Even today, decades since that meeting, I get tense thinking about our discussion. At the time I met with this individual, the orphanages in Romania were extremely underfunded. They had too many children and nowhere near enough resources. The purpose of my meeting was to discuss ways we could work together. We talked about possibly supplying hygienic products for the children, foodstuff, or even potentially converting orphanages to privately funded organizations. All of my proposals were shut down as unwanted by this director. There was no interest in assistance unless it was in monetary form.

I left that meeting feeling very much like punching holes in things. I just could not understand the attitude. How could an individual directing an institution that was underfunded and understaffed turn down help? Children had to be cared for! How was it possible that money was the only acceptable means of assistance? At the time, my answer was corruption, and because of my certainty of that corruption, I did not give any money to the director. It would not go to help the children. But the corruption was only a symptom of the real malady. The real culprit was an attitude of familiarity that developed over years of being exposed to the conditions in the Romanian government orphanages. This person had likely known many children who died in those institutions. Corruption was certainly nothing new, even to the point of stealing food from children’s mouths. It was the way of the world for the director, and now, it was time to profit off the way because of hardness and contempt.

Frankly, I do not excuse myself from the familiarity malady. Too many times, I have overlooked needs that were real because I was used to them. The homeless man on the street, the child dying of cancer, the refugee with no home, I have looked past all of them and others. But there is hope for me, and there is hope for anyone who finds themselves overlooking those in need.

Luke 10:25-37 is one of the most familiar Biblical passages on helping others. It relates to Jesus talking about the Good Samaritan. We hear in this story that a man got beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest walking down the road moves over to the other side and walks on by “when he saw” the beaten man. A Levite does exactly the same thing when he “saw him.” But a Samaritan, a person of Samaria - of the people most Jews in Israel hated at this time - “saw” the beaten man and had “compassion.” The rest of the story explains how this Samaritan took care of the man, even paying for his lodging. After telling the story, Jesus poses the following question: “Who was the neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

Most often, when we hear this story, we focus our attention on the Good Samaritan because that is who we want to be. I would much rather be the hero who helps those in need than those other “walk on by” guys. But just for a moment, let’s look at those other guys, the priest, and the levite. These individuals had similar professions. The priest would have likely had a role in the temple. If not directly in the temple proper, the priest would have been associated with the temple and other religious institutions of the day. The levite may have also had duties associated with the temple. He could have taught or been a scribe for Israel. In both instances, there is a likelihood of exposure to the needs in their respective communities. The places they went and even the duties they performed would have made it common for the sick, lame and poor to be evident and visible.

What would make a person cross to the other side of the road upon seeing a person in need? What would make a priest, whose direct responsibility is the physical and spiritual welfare of the Jewish people, pass by a person so obviously in need? He saw a need and did not respond. I don’t think it was the first time that happened. It’s likely that this priest had done the same many times before. The hand of the beggar was passed by. The lame on his mat was passed by. The poor widow was passed by. So much need and so little response had made a heart grow small and hard.

But - HOPE! There is hope. I know this because Luke explains to whom this story of the Good Samaritan is told. Jesus uses this account to reveal to a “lawyer,” one who was responsible for understanding and interpreting the law, those who are indeed his neighbor. After the lawyer rightly answered the question proposed, Jesus instructed him to “go, and do the same.” With this single statement, we can know that there is hope that we might all be like the Good Samaritan. When faced with the needs of others, we must simply answer the call. We must have compassion. We must show mercy.

We cannot let the magnitude of the need overcome us. We must answer even when our little seems so very small. We must not allow the corruption of some who take advantage of the needs of others for personal gain to stop us. We must answer by seeking out and giving to those who are truly meeting the needs of others. We must not allow familiarity to invade our hearts through mailers, infomercials, and multimedia advertising. We cannot give familiarity a place in our lives. We must answer by giving when the opportunity arises. A small gift will do. Just answer the call.

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