July 23, 2023
Wo Is My Neighbor?
I’m sure everyone has heard the story of the good Samaritan. This story is generally viewed as saying that if someone needs your help, you should help that person. However, this story is saying much more than that. The fact that a Samaritan stops to help the injured person when others did not is key to the story.
In Jesus’ time, the Israelites and the Samaritans had a long history of bad relations. The Samaritan were half Jewish and half Gentile. The Samaritans had their own temple, their own Torah and their own way to worship. Both Jews and Samaritans believed their religion was the correct one. Because of this, there was a long history of hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans. Neither generally interacted with one another. That’s what makes the parable of the good Samaritan so significant. While the religious figures, the priest and Levite, walked past the injured man, the Samaritan, because of past experience with the Israelites would have been the one expected to walk past the man, was the one who stopped to help him. The Samaritan was able to look past any biases or assumptions he may have had towards the injured man and instead saw a fellow human being in need.
I often think about who in our society is seen as worthy of love and acceptance? Do they have to be nice, pretty, smart, talented? Who fits into the conventional categories that society determines is worth love and acceptance, and who doesn’t fit into these categories? As much as I try to accept everyone that I encounter for who they truly are, I find that I also put people into categories of who is not pretty enough, smart enough, nice enough, not successful enough, etc. I haven’t always shown enough love and acceptance to the people who I put into the “not enough” category.
I learned this lesson from a severely disabled child at the Franciscan Hospital for Children several years ago while I was a Chaplain Intern there. Her name was Salma. Salma was a 12-year old girl from Qatar. Her parents were first cousins and Salma was born severely deformed. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t see, her deformities made her really hard to look at, but she carried within her a compassion that I had never experience before.
I met Salma while I was walking in the children’s ward looking for a child to visit. As I was walking through the ward, I saw a child sitting in a wagon in the hallway. As I approached this child, I saw that the child’s face was severely disfigured. It was so hard to look at that I looked away and immediately thought, not that child. I continued walking around the ward looking to see which children weren’t doing anything. I didn’t see many other children so I went up to one of the nurses and asked which child could use a visit. The nurse replied that I could visit Salma. She pointed the way to Salma’s room and told me she would bring Salma in. I went into the room and waited. After a few minutes, in came the nurse pulling the wagon with the disfigured child in it. I immediately felt guilty for having past by the one child that needed a visit the most.
The nurse introduced me to Salma and suggested I read to her. I began reading a children’s bible story to Salma. After a few minutes of my reading Salma put her hands to her ears and started screaming. She screamed until I stopped reading. Once I stopped reading, she stopped screaming. When I started reading again, she started screaming again with her hands to her ears. I read, she screamed, I stopped, she stopped. This went on for a while until I finally asked her if she wanted me to read to her. She wasn’t able to speak, so she couldn’t tell me what she wanted. I didn’t know what to do. I was lost because my normal ways of communicating through talking and gesturing didn’t work. So I sat there and stared at her unsure what to do.
Salma had a xylophone in the wagon with her, and every once in a while she would reach over and hit a note on the xylophone. Relieve to see something that she liked to do, I encouraged her to keep playing. After a little while, I had to leave and ended the visit, but I continued to think about Salma and how much she seemed to love music. I really love music too and I realized that was something I could share with Salma; something we had in common. So, the next day, I brought in my IPod to play music for Salma. I played some of my favorite songs for her and she sat and listened to them. I was kneeling by the wagon, holding the IPod in front of me choosing the songs to play. Salma had amazing hearing, and she could hear me pressing the buttons on the IPod. She reached out to touch what I was playing the music on. I realized this was the way she communicated, though sound and touch.
I continued to visit Salma with my IPod, playing her songs that I thought she would enjoy. On each visit she would reach out and touch the IPod. Then she got braver and felt my hands holding the IPod. After a few more visits, she skipped the IPod and started holding my hand. When I went to leave she didn’t want to let go. I stayed as long as I could listening to music and holding hands. This is what our visits consisted of the rest of the time I spent with Salma. This is how we communicated and connected through music and touch. It was strange to me to not be able to communicate through talking, but I discovered that through touch, I connected with Salma at a level that I had never experienced before. Then I began to appreciate and later cherish being able to sit quietly with Salma without feeling like I had to say or do anything. I began to look forward to this time with her.
I also noticed that other people had trouble getting past Salma’s deformities. They seemed to feel awkward and didn’t know what to do with Salma. I remember seeing Salma’s father talking to her and trying to interact with her and she wasn’t responding. I said to another intern, “I don’t think he knows what to do with her.” The other intern said, “I don’t blame him.” Salma’s father and the other intern couldn’t see past their expectations about how people should be with one another and missed the beauty and love that Salma could bring into their lives.
Salma went back to Qatar, where she came from. I will never see her again, but I will never forget everything that she taught me. Salma taught me that a beautiful person can be inside a body that is really hard to look at. She taught me that it is possible to connect with someone if I open my mind to the possibility of what the other person has to offer, and to receive someone else’s gift of compassion in whatever form they have to give it. She also taught me to let go of my own assumptions and when I could do that, I was able to receive God’s love and compassion through this little girl.
Jesus tells us to come to him with all the burdens, expectations and assumptions that we carry with us. We don’t need to carry this heavy load. All we need is to learn from Jesus, to learn what he can teach us about humility, love and compassion, and about how to be in relationship with God and with one another. Jesus doesn’t require rules, regulations, and burdensome assumptions and obligations – things that weigh us down and make us weary. We can let those things go.
Instead, what Jesus asks of us is much simpler and much less burdensome. Jesus asks us to be merciful, loving and kind with everyone. He asks us to love God with all our hearts, minds and souls and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light.
So, I invite you to shed the burdens, expectations and assumptions that are weighing you down, and to follow Jesus in the way of love and compassion. I ask you to think about who you have put in your “not worthy” category that could use your acceptance, love and compassion. Jesus said that it is easy to show love toward those who we already love. God will show us how to love those who seem unlovable.