Once upon a time “roadside assistance” consisted of some kind stranger stopping to help a person in need. I grew up watching my dad pull over to help a needy motorist with a flat tire or to give him a lift to the nearest gas station.
Once when we were crossing the desert (The Great American Desert, somewhere between Los Vegas and LA), my sister called for my dad to stop the car. She’d seen a little boy on the side of the road, she said. The “little boy” turned out to be a young man, but he was indeed out in the desert alone. With some hesitancy my dad agreed to invite him to join us.
Those were, in fact, changing times, when hitchhikers might actually be robbers or worse. The common wisdom had shifted. Motorists were to be wary of strangers. Someone who looked like she was in need of help might actually be bait for nefarious schemers planning to take advantage of kindhearted people.
More and more, “kindhearted people” began to disappear.
Now it is news when a stranger acts selflessly on behalf of someone in need, when a “finder” doesn’t turn out to be a “keeper” but a “returner” instead.
What society seemed to discover was that there was a cost to helping others. Not only were fewer and fewer willing to pay the price, we actually had public service announcements warning us not to try to be heroes. Don’t try to stop the robber or pick up the hitchhiker. Let the professionals handle it. Because getting involved is costly.
Then came the day when Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York with thirty-eight witnesses ignoring her screams for help. She lived for fifty minutes after the first attack. A more recent retelling of the event suggests that only fourteen people actually witnessed the attack and that several phoned the police, to no avail. Still, the horrific event stirred people’s conscience and had them asking whether we had become too disconnected from each other.
Some have even referred to the case as the antithesis to the Good Samaritan.
Which is precisely the point.
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? The story revealed that the hated Samaritan who went out of his way, spent his own money, risked his own life, made himself religiously unclean, was in fact the one who acted like a neighbor to the mugging victim.
Loving a neighbor costs. Sometimes in rich western societies, it’s easy to throw money at hurting people. Certainly money can be a help to someone who can’t pay the rent or who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. But I wonder if that isn’t the easy out. We can write a check and don’t have to get our hands dirty or our schedule disrupted.
The fact is, the needy person might not be a random stranger, but the person across the street. The help might be weekly visits to a lonely person or doing grocery shopping for someone elderly. It might be volunteering to mow a lawn or to take on the watering. It’s hard to think about adding someone else’s needs to our own already overly busy schedule. How can we possibly love our neighbors as we love ourselves when we really don’t have time to do all we know we should be doing in our own family? After all, love costs, and sometimes the price just seems too high. After all, those people across the street are strangers . . .