HELP! I NEED SOMEBODY––HELP!
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
July 12, 2020
Texts: Amos 9:13–15; Luke 10:25–37
The young 25-year-old woman braced herself as she extended her arm into the netted area swarming with infected mosquitoes. It would only take one bite to see if the dreaded pall would cast its shadow over her. Although Clara Maass, the young nurse from New Jersey had been bitten several times before and survived, this bout with yellow fever brought about her death––and the end of the use of human beings as test animals. A devout Lutheran, she strongly believed that God would welcome her desire to help even if it caused her death.
Sometimes called the original human dilemma, the question of whether and when to help someone in need nags at us as we go about our daily business. Before Covid-19, we would have asked ourselves what we were supposed to do when confronted with a panhandler in the street. Did we “help” by giving him a dollar or was that help at all? Are there limits to what we can or should so?
The idea of “help” is central to the biblical myth of human origins. Adam is given Eve as a helpmeet when God realizes it is not good for Adam to live alone. Adam needs someone to help him as well as someone to help. In that sense help is a two-way street. When we do not live alone we live in human company and thus to help and to be helped.
And how are we responsible for the well-being of another? By helping, of course. But what does that mean? What are the legitimate demands on our time, our resources, or our lives?
We are deluged with requests for help on a daily basis. We are asked to give to this cause or that, to support this drive or that, usually through photos of emaciated children, abused animals, homeless families. If we are truthful, we have learned to shut out most of the horrors of the world and it is only when confronted with that special photograph that we are forced to ask: What can I do?
The enormity of problems around us sometimes absolves us of responsibility. After all, when the problem is so big, we are not only helpless but our attempts seem futile. That’s why the photo is of one small child with the vulture hovering over her is so powerful; we can relate to one small child. A photo of a mass of people in a camp just seems totally over-whelming. So, we reach in our pocket and pull out the dollar and feel better. We have helped.
The story of the Good Samaritan presents us with another dilemma: not only whether to help but the extent of our help. Although Jesus had told this parable to get us to think outside the box, there is another hidden message inside the story that makes it appealing for us. The help is not forever. Beset by thieves, the man is dying on the side of the road and the Samaritan, hated and feared by Jews, picks up the poor Jew and puts him on his own donkey, takes him to an inn and pays for his care––but not forever. The care is only until he is healed––a sort of ancient emergency Medicaid.
But there is a part of the story that is disturbing to us. The Samaritan must take the man, who is helpless, and put him on the animal. In other words, he had to get his own hands dirty, so to speak, by touching the other. The story compels us to think about touching those dirty panhandlers and the panhandlers know we never really wanted to touch them; that’s why they have cups––so we can drop the quarter into the cup and feel good without touching, without dirtying ourselves. So Jesus in this story tells us to touch the helpless person, not just to give money. And we think, it’s only for a moment.
But help, real help is not just for a moment. Like diamonds, real help is forever. Real help forces us into a relationship not just of helper to helpee, of the powerful to the powerless but the eradication of such boundaries, such lines. Real help is always political, not in a partisan sense, but in the sense of power and powerlessness. When we really help, we lose a little of our own power and make people less dependent on us for, well, help. And when we empower people, those in power often get upset.
“When I feed the poor, they called me a saint,” said Dom Helder Camara, “but when I asked why are the poor hungry, they called me a communist.” Roman Catholic Bishop of Recife in northeast Brazil, Camara was a thorn in the side of the military dictatorship that our government supported. How many of us, including me, would live among the poor? Not many, I’ll wager.
I read stories about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurer and how they set up the worker houses in the very midst of the slum to live among the poor, and, to be truthful, I am grateful that someone does this, someone else. But Jesus’ command to help forces us to look beyond the kind of help that the Samaritan gave, beyond the limits we impose on ourselves. The question for us is how far we need to go.
This has become a question in this time of Covid-19. In March we were all told to stay home, don’t go out, and to protect ourselves from this virus. Businesses closed and people lost jobs. The soup kitchens closed down and so did many food pantries. Many state and county offices charged with helping the poor could not meet with the poor they were supposed to help.
Then an amazing thing happened: people began organizing ways to help others who needed the help. Volunteers started showing up in places and with organ-izations to provide assistance. Restaurants that could not be open for business began putting meals together for health-care personnel at hospitals; in some communities motel and hotel owners donated their empty rooms to health-care workers who were concerned about bringing the virus home to their families.
Wanting to help is part of our DNA. The tough questions for us at this time involve how best to help. We do not have to be like Clara Maass who, having contracted the fever on August 14, was dead by August 24. But we do need to think creatively how best to help those who need it.
Jesus, thinking outside the box as usual, shifted the focus to the questioner, to the lawyer trying to justify himself: Now who is the neighbor? We are then told to go and do likewise. In other words, don’t just give the money but at least figuratively touch the one who needs our help and dirty ourselves by putting someone on our donkey. Look at others, put aside our prejudices, and draw near as did the Samaritan and we cannot be the same afterwards.
Let us pray: Compassionate One who has given us eyes to see, hearts to feel, help us to go beyond our positions of power to support others, eradicating all boundaries of mind and heart. In the name of him who had no boundaries, even Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.