July 14, 2019: Three Basic Attitudes About Life

July 14, 2019                                                                             Rev. Scott Moncrieff


THREE BASIC ATTITUDES ABOUT LIFE Luke 10:25-37 Chapel July 14,2019

       A Sunday school teacher was telling her class the story of the Good Samaritan. She told how the man was beaten, robbed and left for dead. She described the situation in vivid detail so her students would catch the drama.  Then she asked the class, “If you saw a person lying on the roadside all wounded and bleeding, what would you do?”

       A thoughtful little girl broke the hushed silence.  “I think I’d throw up,” she said.

       Well, she was being honest. There are many adults who do not respond well to such a horrifying situation.

       In New York City a mailman, shot by a sniper, was ordered to leave a building lobby. He was ordered to leave because he was dripping blood.

       In Oklahoma City a woman gave birth unexpectedly on a city sidewalk. Bystanders turned their faces and ignored her. A taxi driver looked, then sped away. A nearby hotel refused to provide her a blanket.

       In Dayton, Ohio, a dozen people saw a woman drive her car into the Miami River. They watched indifferently as the woman climbed on the car’s roof and screamed that she couldn’t swim. The woman drowned.

       So many incidents like this have happened that newspapers now have a special file tabbed “Apathy.”  

       On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

       “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

       The expert answered:  “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

       “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

       But, says Luke, this expert in the law wanted “to justify himself.” That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? He wanted to justify himself and so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

       In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan . . . came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

       “Which of these three,” asked Jesus, “do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

       The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

       Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

       There are three basic attitudes about life in this time-honored story of the Good Samaritan--three basic attitudes that are present in every human situation.

       First, we have the lawyer who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. His attitude was basically: “What’s in it for me? Think about his question to Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s not asking what he must do to build a better world. He’s not asking even what he can do to be a better person. All he’s interested in is finding out what he must do to get into heaven.

       Luke suggests that the expert in the law is asking this to test Jesus, but I suspect it was more than that. He had an additional agenda. The lawyer’s question to Jesus wasn’t about how to please God, or how to live a righteous life; he only wanted to know what was on the entrance exam in order to get through the pearly gates.

       Now it is perfectly natural for us to want to go to heaven. No healthy person wants to die. But, if this is the sum total of our faith, we are a long way from the abundant life Christ desires for each of us.

       I say this realizing that this may be the reason many people come to religion. What’s in it for me? We want to go to heaven. Perfectly natural. But this is only the beginning of our obsession with our own needs. When we get sick, we want to know that there is Someone out there we can turn to. We worry about our family. If being religious means that God will look out for them, then it is a small price to pay.

       Nobody says it quite that crassly, but many Christians basically come to the faith asking, “What’s in it for me?” It’s very human, but it is also very far from the heart of Christ.

       Notice again that when Jesus answers the lawyer’s question by telling him 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 to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the lawyer seeks “to justify himself” by asking, “And who is my neighbor?”

       I love this phrase, “seeking to justify himself.” This expert in the law knew full well what the Jewish law required of him--love God, love your neighbor. He also knew full well that he had not lived up to that law. So, what does he do? He does what you and I so often do: He seeks to justify himself.

       It happens all the time. We pass a homeless person on the street asking for some change. We feel guilty, and immediately we start justifying ourselves, “He’ll just spend it on alcohol or drugs,” we say to ourselves. Our neighbor has a tragedy of some kind. We know we ought to stop by, offer some encouragement. We start to justify ourselves: “I’m sure he has some family or friends who will look in on him.”

       You see the lawyer is a nice respectable guy. He will do all right for himself in life. But he will never be what God wants him to be. He will never escape his essential attitude--what can I get out of this?

       Do you see yourself in the lawyer’s perspective on life? I confess that all too often I see myself here. It’s just not where God means for us to be. But it’s the first attitude reflected in this story: what’s in it for me?

       The second attitude is expressed by the religious professionals in the story, the priest and the Levite. That attitude is: “Not my problem.”  This is a growing attitude in our society. Not my problem. 

       Army Major Odie Butler was on his way to work at the Pentagon one morning when he came upon a serious accident on Interstate 395.  A man had lost control of his truck and crashed.  He had landed by the side of the Interstate, and was critically injured.  All this happened during morning rush hour, but no one had stopped to help. 

       As Butler ministered to the man, other drivers on the Interstate screamed at him, honked, made obscene gestures.  They were upset that the wreck was slowing down their morning commute.  Butler tried desperately to get someone to call for an ambulance, but those drivers who weren’t hostile to him were indifferent.  Finally, an Air Force computer specialist, Larry Meade, stopped to help.  Hundreds of other motorists passed the accident that day, and no one else offered to help.

       I’m sure there were many conscientious people who passed by that scene. They knew they, too, should have stopped. And surely some of them were justifying themselves, “I’m late to work. I’ll get my shirt dirty. Someone else will surely stop--someone who doesn’t have the responsibilities I have.” Not my problem.

       Certainly the priest and the Levite who passed by the man in Jesus’ story were religious men. And they were probably very conscientious in their service to God, at least on a professional level. But there’s where it stayed--professional. They performed their professional religious duties, but they did not apply their spiritual knowledge to the real world’s needs. This is the curse of my vocation.

       You understand, of course, that it’s possible to love God and not to like people. It’s a constant temptation of clergy persons. We’re comfortable in our studies, comfortable with our books or our computers, comfortable studying the scriptures. We’re not as comfortable in the messy world where real people live.

       Can you see the priest and the Levite passing by on the other side and in their minds also justifying themselves. They were probably saying things like, “Surely there’ll be some lay people who’ll be by shortly. They can look after this poor guy. This isn’t my calling. I am to study the word and inspire others. This isn’t my problem.”

       Some of you may remember the famous “Good Samaritan” research done by some researchers at Princeton University back in the 1970s. In this study, a group of theology students was told that they were to go across campus to deliver a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan. As part of the research, some of these students were told that they were late and needed to hurry up. They believed people would be waiting for them to arrive.

       Along the route these seminarians traveled across campus to the chapel, the researchers had hired an actor to play the role of a “victim” who was lying on the ground, coughing and suffering. Here is the amazing thing that came out of this research: ninety percent of the seminarians who were to deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan ignored the needs of the suffering person right in front of them in their haste to get across campus. In fact, on several occasions, the seminary students literally stepped over the victim as they hurried on their way!  That would be funny if it were not so sad!

       These seminarians were not bad people. Like most of us, they were simply self-involved people. A man having a heart attack was not on their agenda. They were concerned about doing good in the abstract, but not doing good in the concrete.

       Of course, clergy are not the only people guilty of looking at bad situations and saying, not my problem. It’s an increasing part of our complex society where there are so many real needs.  How can we see that, because we are connected to one another in God’s family, these really are our problems? The first attitude: what’s in it for me? The second attitude: not my problem.

       (3)Finally there is the Samaritan. His attitude is: “What can I do to help?”

       We could spend a lot of time dissecting this story and expounding the fact that the person in this story who needed help was undoubtedly a Jew and many Jews and Samaritans despised one another.  And that’s significant, of course. It may be, however, that the Samaritan never even stopped to think about that. Somehow he was programmed so that when he saw another person in need, whoever he or she might be, he responded. He didn’t rationalize the situation in order to justify himself, he simply acted and did what needed doing. Thank God there are still people like that, some of them in this congregation.

       I was reading sometime back about Dr. William Magee Jr., a plastic surgeon in Norfolk, Va. In 1981 Dr. Magee traveled to the Philippines to operate on children with cleft lips and other facial deformities. Unfortunately there were so many children with this deformity, a deformity that can render it impossible for them to speak or eat, that hundreds had to be turned away.

       This caused Dr. Magee and his wife to found an organization called Operation Smile. Operation Smile sends volunteer doctors to perform reconstructive facial surgery for children worldwide. “It wasn’t a strategic plan,” said Magee. “It was just a matter of emotion and passion to make sure children didn’t have to live this way.”

       The group, which already has treated 50,000 children worldwide, also trains doctors in other nations to perform the procedure. Magee hopes to use satellite technology in the future, so he can teach a greater number of medical professionals the necessary techniques.

       Dr. Magee didn’t have to do that. He could have justified himself. “What’s in it for me? There are so many children in my own city whose parents or whose insurance company could pay for this surgery. I’m a busy doctor here. I don’t have to go halfway around the world and minister to indigent children. Not my problem.”

       I doubt if Dr. Magee even wondered if this act of service would get him into heaven. He simply saw a need and filled it.

       Three attitudes. Where do you stand? Which dominates your life? What’s in it for me? Not my problem. Or, what can I do to help?

Our daughter whom some of you have met, her husband and their two children were returning from a fishing trip in the Dry Tortugas on their boat one Saturday.  They saw something strange in the water far ahead.  As they got closer, they saw 2 men and a boy clinging to a partially inflated innertube in the middle of nowhere.  Turned out they and several others overloaded a small fishing boat to escape from Cuba.  The boat caught on fire.  They had been in the water in this state for 5 days.  When they helped these 3 into their boat they were told that another boat like theirs had gone by a couple of days before, and thrown a bottle of water at them for them to drink and they went on.

It turned out that if the older man had stayed in the water another half day he would have died from exposure.

       I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Scott, I would really like to be more like the Good Samaritan. I get tired of my excuses. I get tired of seeking to justify my inaction. But I’m not sure, even if I wanted to change, that I could. I’ve been this way too long. I’m not making excuses this time. I just don’t think it’s possible for me to start reacting in a different way. I think that in order for me to have that radical of a change in attitude I would have to be born all over again.

       And maybe that’s what we all need in order to have the heart of Jesus--to be born all over again. To see life in a whole new way. Let’s pray that God will give us the heart of the Master so that any time we see someone in need, our first response will be, “What can I do to help?


Debbie Wilson