Social Distancing Gone Wrong

“So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:36-37

A new phrase has entered our recent vernacular: social distancing. To help “flatten the curve” in the spread of the Corona Virus, we’re being encouraged to keep our distance from one another. Interestingly, Americans have been getting better at this long before any life-threatening contagion showed up. With the advent of the smart phone, our eyes have been down in our devices rather than up and aware of those around us.

We’ve never been more isolated from one another due to the distance technology has created. We can shop online, talk online, and even (in many cases) work online. Who needs human interaction? Well, it turns out, we all do. Now that keeping our distance is being imposed upon us by state and federal regulations, we’re suddenly aware of how difficult distance can be.

On the bright side, this is a time to make memories with family, reflect on our priorities, and hopefully learn something about genuine human connection. If we’re having to pay the tuition for the lesson by our isolation and inconvenience, it would be great if we could have some take-aways from the experience.

Human connection is necessary for everyone, but it is essential for good Christianity. You can’t “social distance your life away” and have any genuine impact on others. Times of private devotion and prayer do not replace the need to have a hands-on life of service. How this is to be done will be different from person to person, to be certain, and it will be guided by our time, our gifts, and our opportunities, but there is no doubt that there are plenty of needs to go around.

In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus tells the story that is undoubtedly familiar to many of us. We know it as story of The Good Samaritan. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho falls among thieves. This was nothing unusual on that road in that time, and it sets up a real-life scenario for Jesus’ message. After being robbed and left half-dead on the road, the injured man is found by a priest and then a Levite. That might be comparable to a pastor and a church staff member, respectively, in our day. Both passed him by without even pausing to see the nature of the man’s condition. 

This would not have been lost on Jesus’ audience, nor would it have been missed by the lawyer (a religious scholar) who asked the question which initiated this story, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus had affirmed the lawyer’s earlier assertion that we keep the law by loving God and loving our neighbor, but the man, wanting to “justify himself,” had asked the question. Instead of answering the question directly, however, Jesus instead tells the story to illustrate what a good neighbor looks like. Obviously, the priest and Levite were not good neighbors, demonstrating a callous indifference to the injured man’s condition.

It quickly gets worse for Jesus’ decidedly Jewish audience when the hero of the story turns out to be a Samaritan – someone these Jews would have considered to be a half-breed and someone certainly beneath them. In Jesus’ story, not only does the Samaritan get involved, but he deeply invests in the recovery and welfare of the injured man. Setting aside his own business, he stops to nurse the man’s injuries, carry him to an inn where he can find extended care, and even pays for the expenses out of his own pocket. Clearly, Jesus is rephasing the question from, “Who is my neighbor?” to “What kind of neighbor are you?” – a relevant question for all of us, even when we’re not facing a serious health crisis together.

Jesus’ story also demonstrates that outward behavior is governed by inward motivations. All the religious pretense in the world cannot make up for a cold, indifferent heart. While many are feeling they can’t serve God unless they stand in some kind of ecclesiastical office, others are simply like the Samaritan man, using their gifts and opportunities, doing what is needed at the time. Those who rescued victims from the terrible floods in Houston a few years back needed no special calling to do so any more than we need some kind of special calling to be gracious and show kindness to others during our current crisis.

There are those in our neighborhoods right now who, like the man on the side of the road, are particularly vulnerable and need a thoughtful hand to help them. While we might be limited due to restrictions, we can still do much if it is in our heart to help. There may be an elderly couple or a widow who could use that extra package of toilet paper we were able to scramble for at our local convenience store. Someone less fortunate than ourselves may need a bag of groceries to supplement a meager dinner. I don’t think we need a lot of help coming up with practical ideas. What we need are good neighbors, more concerned with helping others than how they look doing it.

In the first church I served as pastor, we had a member who was an especially good mechanic. He was a laborer who served as an usher in our church and was very faithful. One particular service he regularly rendered to me personally was the care of my car. I’ve never been good at anything related to auto mechanics, so to have someone so skilled oversee the care and maintenance of my car at no charge was a great blessing to me and my family. I’ve never forgotten how clean the engine would look under the hood when he was finished with whatever job he had performed. I could tell it was as much a blessing for him to do this for me and my family as it was for us. That was 30 years ago, and yet it was one of the first examples of neighborliness I thought of as I sat down to write this article.

Social distancing might be the proper tact for our current crisis, but that doesn’t mean we have to be distant or indifferent in our hearts. It’s at times like this, when our prospects may seem a little darker, that the light of Christ can shine more brightly through simple acts of compassion. Instead of wondering what the bottom line requirement is for our behavior, why don’t we serve others as good neighbors, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ story. Not only will it serve those of our community, but we’ll discover, as my church member did all those years ago, that it really is more blessed to give than to receive.

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