June 11, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
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.”
In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman coined a phrase to refer to what he considered to be one of the negative impacts of the information age. His “low information-action ratio” postulated that with the exponential increase of data now flooding our flat screens, highways, desktops, and cell phones comes a corresponding diminution of actual responsiveness to any of it. There was a time, Postman argues, when most information we received was local, whose implications or impact were immediately felt, and therefore which tended to elicit some kind of reaction more readily. If you heard your neighbor’s house burned down, you were more likely to tend to their need because you knew them and because that information represented almost all the “news” you’d heard all day.
Now, with so much more information coming our way, and from places we’ve likely never heard of, we can’t hope to respond appreciably to even a fraction of it. In constantly receiving without responding, though, we’re being conditioned to respond to nothing. Our responsiveness is atrophying for want of use because we’re becoming accustomed to hearing information only.
That our compassion is being compromised by the onslaught of data we’re exposed to seems a very tenable thesis, but Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan may unearth a deeper reason for our unresponsiveness: the atrophy results not so much from lack of use as it is from a lack of gratitude.
The Samaritan is the quintessence of responsiveness and compassion. He is entirely impartial to the identity of the beleaguered journeyman. He pays no attention to his ethnicity, his physical condition, or his socioeconomic status; he simply attends to his need because of the need. The Samaritan expresses substantial generosity in extending time, care, wisdom, and resources to see to his recovery. Furthermore, Jesus’ protagonist exemplifies clear perspective: whatever the Samaritan’s priorities or responsibilities, nothing was as important in that moment than rendering sacrificial aid to this hapless victim.
Jesus employs the Samaritan as the embodiment of compassion to remind the listening Jews what true neighborliness was—à la Leviticus 19:18. His audience had allowed their warped reading of the Law to excuse them from the true compassion the Law enjoined. Their neighborliness had atrophied for lack of clarity about God’s concern for mercy.
We could all stand to hear afresh, as we did the last two Sundays, the call to neighborliness. Simply following the command to love your neighbor will do much to restore vigor where there has been atrophy.
But it’s even more important to remember that this parable about neighborliness came from the mouth of Jesus. More important because all the reasons you might be hesitant to show the compassion of neighborliness get swallowed up in Jesus when you really believe His gospel. The Word and Work of His gospel inspire abiding compassion. Remember those aspects of the Samaritan’s compassion we mentioned above?
When you see how you are equally in need of mercy in Christ as anyone, impartiality is the only logical response. Believing yourself to be afflicted with sin and self-inflation, and nevertheless tended to by Jesus, you lose all reason to bear prejudice to another in their need.
When you recognize His substantial generosity to you in setting aside much to bring you even more (Philippians 2:6–11), the inclination to be tightfisted with what you have evaporates. You don’t feel the compulsion to hoard your time or money when you know that what you’ve been given is more lavish and substantial than anything you might feel compelled to keep.
Finally, when you see how Jesus saw His glory and our need all in clear perspective, you tend to see another’s need above all the things you “need” to do. Neighborliness is elevated over Netflix in the priorities of your heart.
Postman theorized that our neighborliness suffers for lack of use. Jesus argues that neighborliness will be reinvigorated through use, but moreso through gratitude—a gratitude that can be sustained only by a deep-rooted belief in the love compassionately offered in His cross (cf. Ephesians 3:14–19).
What, if anything, is hindering your neighborliness? How might reconsidering His “voluntary transfer of wealth” to you cause your neighborliness to become more involuntary?