And who is my neighbor?" asked the scholar of the law, and received this for his answer:

A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, "Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back." Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?

Just about everyone knows this story: Luke 10:30-36. (The version above is from the New American Bible.) When I was younger, I was admittedly more impressed by the form than by the content: Jesus had answered a question by a question of his own, a rhetorical device I thought was incredibly spiffy. Besides, I was just a kid, not in a position to help out anybody in need.

With age, though, comes, if not necessarily wisdom, at least the capacity to look back at the ideas and ideals of youth, and amend them as necessary. I got in the habit of stopping for stranded motorists. (And I'm hardly alone in this practice.) Things I didn't need — sometimes things I did need but could spare for the moment, like surplus food in the pantry — would be earmarked for organizations dedicated to helping those who needed but didn't have.

Still, I questioned my own motives. I was a major Mark Twain fan as a teenager, and I read, not only all the novels, but as many essays as I could get my hands on, and one that I read several dozen times over the years was "What Is Man?" It's a long piece, set up entirely as a dialogue between two men, one young and idealistic, the other old and (maybe) cynical. A pertinent passage:

Y.M. Well, then, for instance. Take the case in the book here. The man lives three miles up-town. It is bitter cold, snowing hard, midnight. He is about to enter the horse-car when a gray and ragged old woman, a touching picture of misery, puts out her lean hand and begs for rescue from hunger and death. The man finds that he has a quarter in his pocket, but he does not hesitate: he gives it her and trudges home through the storm. There — it is noble, it is beautiful; its grace is marred by no fleck or blemish or suggestion of self-interest.

O.M. What makes you think that?

Y.M. Pray what else could I think? Do you imagine that there is some other way of looking at it?

O.M. Can you put yourself in the man's place and tell me what he felt and what he thought?

Y.M. Easily. The sight of that suffering old face pierced his generous heart with a sharp pain. He could not bear it. He could endure the three-mile walk in the storm, but he could not endure the tortures his conscience would suffer if he turned his back and left that poor old creature to perish. He would not have been able to sleep, for thinking of it.

O.M. What was his state of mind on his way home?

Y.M. It was a state of joy which only the self-sacrificer knows. His heart sang, he was unconscious of the storm.

O.M. He felt well?

Y.M. One cannot doubt it.

O.M. Very well. Now let us add up the details and see how much he got for his twenty-five cents. Let us try to find out the REAL why of his making the investment. In the first place HE couldn't bear the pain which the old suffering face gave him. So he was thinking of HIS pain — this good man. He must buy a salve for it. If he did not succor the old woman HIS conscience would torture him all the way home. Thinking of HIS pain again. He must buy relief for that. If he didn't relieve the old woman HE would not get any sleep. He must buy some sleep — still thinking of HIMSELF, you see. Thus, to sum up, he bought himself free of a sharp pain in his heart, he bought himself free of the tortures of a waiting conscience, he bought a whole night's sleep — all for twenty-five cents! It should make Wall Street ashamed of itself. On his way home his heart was joyful, and it sang — profit on top of profit! The impulse which moved the man to succor the old woman was — FIRST — to CONTENT HIS OWN SPIRIT; secondly to relieve HER sufferings.

I hadn't thought about this passage for several years, until this week, when what I thought was a gentle rebuke to a California kid turned into a veritable scream-fest before my very eyes. I won't quote the particulars here; you can read them for yourself, or you can ignore them. But the arguments shaped up very similarly to those I'd remembered from Twain.

Except that, despite appearances, Twain's Old Man wasn't actually disdainful of charity. He questioned its motivation, of course:

Duties are not performed for duty's SAKE, but because their NEGLECT would make the man UNCOMFORTABLE. A man performs but ONE duty — the duty of contenting his spirit, the duty of making himself agreeable to himself. If he can most satisfyingly perform this sole and only duty by HELPING his neighbor, he will do it; if he can most satisfyingly perform it by SWINDLING his neighbor, he will do it.

And later:

Y.M. If you were going to condense into an admonition your plan for the general betterment of the race's condition, how would you word it?

O.M. Diligently train your ideals UPWARD and STILL UPWARD toward a summit where you will find your chiefest pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon your neighbor and the community.

We've already seen a definition of "neighbor." Jesus had said, just before that, that you shall love "your neighbor as yourself." It occurs to me that neglecting to do so makes some of us uncomfortable, while others couldn't care less. And apparently it was always such.

The Vent

#630
  24 May 2009

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