Tell It Slant, II: Like a Good Neighbor…
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“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
The other night my wife and my dog were out of town so my friends invited me to join them for dinner, and I got to sit next to my lawyer friend Dana, and he was such a snappy raconteur, it reminded me how much I love lawyers.
I know not everybody does. If you Google “lawyer jokes,” you’ll get about 825,000 hits. Some of those jokes are pretty mean, so I don’t think I’m going to share even one of them with you.
But think of all the great lawyers in history and literature: Clarence Darrow, Atticus Finch, Reese Witherspoon as Elle Wood.
And I’ve found that they actually come in rather handy on several important occasions. Traffic court, for instance, or bankruptcy proceedings, or divorce court, or at 3 a.m. in the morning when your teenager phones home from the police station.
And at a dinner party, right? In my experience, they are excellent conversationalists. They are well-educated, of course, and many of them have this sort of omnivorous curiosity.
They make a living by winning arguments of course, so that’s what they like to do—argue. Just when everyone else at the table has arrived at tedious agreement on some important issue, up pipes the lawyer, who rescues the evening with that marvelous little conversation resuscitator, “Yes, but…” “Yes, but think about this.” Or, “Yes, but what about that?” I try never to have a dinner party without a lawyer. Nobody goes home till 2 a.m. in the morning, but that just means it was a great party.
One day a lawyer decides to match wits with Jesus. This lawyer has no time for small talk; he jumps right into the deep end of the pool by asking Jesus a classically impossible question: “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, like the college freshman who walks into the first day of philosophy class, he asks, “Professor, what is the meaning of life?”
Jesus answers his question with a question. You’ve heard what Woody Allen says about this, right? A student asks, “Rabbi, why do Rabbis always answer a question with a question?” The Rabbi strokes his beard for a moment and finally says, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with a question?”
“Rabbi, what is the point of human life?” asks the lawyer. Jesus answers with a question: “What do you read in the law? How do you interpret it?” The lawyer gives the answer every schoolboy has memorized from his youngest years: “Love the Lord your God above all, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Bingo! Give me a high five! An ‘A’ for the day.”
But this is not what the lawyer had in mind. He wanted to match wits with this hotshot young rabbi, and here Jesus has him parroting Sunday School lessons. Not to be outdone, the lawyer keeps it interesting with that great conversation resuscitator, “Yes, but…” “Yes, but who is my neighbor?” And this time, Jesus answers not with a question, but with one of his earthy little yarns.
He says, “There was a man traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” A 17-mile hike, downhill all the way, literally and figuratively, because this was a notoriously dangerous stretch of road beleaguered by marauding gangs who make Tony Soprano look like, well, like Renee Fleming.
The inevitable happens; he gets mugged. They take his wallet, his ID, his cash, his credit cards, and even his clothes, and leave him there along the side of the road in his shorts, bleeding, black and blue, and unconscious.
A priest comes riding by—or, to bring it closer to home, a Presbyterian minister—happens to see this sorry specimen of humanity lying there along the side of the road, and with that uncanny ability of the spiritually inclined entirely to miss the point of religion, takes a wide detour.
The guy is half-dead, but to the priest, who doesn’t get close enough to tell, he looks all dead, and in Judaism, a priest is forbidden to come into contact with a corpse.
The priest is on his way to Jericho to preside at some important religious ceremony or other, or maybe to preach a sermon on good works, and he simply can’t risk being contaminated by coming into contact with a corpse, because then he’d have to go through all these irritating and time-consuming purification rituals, and he’d have to burn his clothes, which are new, and then he’d never get to Jericho in time to preach his sermon about helping the disadvantaged. So off he goes, pretending not to see.
A little later, a Levite comes by, or perhaps we should say an Episcopalian vestryman, the point being that the Levite, though not a priest, is a person with significant religious responsibilities. But the Episcopalian too decides not to let this unpleasantness interrupt his important schedule or ruin his day. Perhaps he thought that someone else would happen along at any moment to help this guy.
Do you do this too? You’re racing down I-94, late for an important appointment in the Loop, and you see a young woman trying to change a tire along the side of the road while holding an infant, and you say to yourself, “Forty cars a minute are seeing the same thing I’m seeing, and most of them are not wearing a $700 suit. Why is it up to me to solve this problem?”
In any case, the Levite, or the Episcopalian vestryman, like the Presbyterian preacher, chooses someone else ruin her day. And with a rev of the engine and a screech of the tires, off go the Presbyterian elder and the Episcopalian vestryman, and along comes…along comes…well, you fill in the blank. Jesus wants to shock his listeners, so he says “Along comes a Samaritan.” Jesus sounds like a famous insurance jingle: “Like a good neighbor, the Samaritan is there.”
The Samaritans, being almost but not quite like the Jews, were a constant source of irritation to their more fastidious neighbors just to the south of them. They were mongrels with mixed blood running through their veins, half Jewish and half God knows what, people of poor taste and limited religious sensibilities. It was like Draco Malfoy to Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley; all they are to him is mud-bloods, half-bloods, mongrels. One of the most respected sages of Judaism in 200 B.C. referred to the Samaritans as “those stupid people who live near Shechem.”
Jesus says, “Along comes a Samaritan.” But fill in your own blank. Along comes a neo-Nazi. Along comes a Democrat. Along comes an Ohio State Buckeye. Along comes a Wolverine. Particularly loathsome to you. The guy takes off his shirt and rips it into bandages for the guy’s bleeding forehead. He piles the guy into his brand new red Volvo station wagon, ruining his brand new leather seats, drives to the nearest hotel, stays up half the night nursing the guy’s wounds, and in the morning gives the desk clerk his American Express card, and says, “Here, take care of him until he is well.”
There are some special people in this world, like this Samaritan—you have them in your life too—there are some people in this world who instinctively take responsibility for what is not inherently, naturally their own. They say: If you are in need, you are my priority. If you are wounded, you are mine for the healing. If you are broken, you are mine for the mending. They can’t help themselves.
I spend every August in the Leelanau Peninsula. You have to forgive Michigan people for doing this all the time; we can’t help ourselves; we have two handy maps of Michigan at the end of our arms. The Leelanau Peninsula is the tip of the pinky on the Michigan hand. Where I go is on the inside of the pinky—on Grand Traverse Bay. The Schaffs are on the inside of the pinky, the Lockharts, the McClures, the Stanleys.
The Knights and the Fishmans and the Meyers are on the outside of the pinky, closer to the open water of Lake Michigan.
So last August 2, I was up there on the porch of the place where I stay, looking east over Grand Traverse Bay, and I’m watching the loudest, brightest thunderstorm I have ever seen. It deafened my ears and blinded my eyes. It was impressive, but harmless, I thought. Lasted about ten minutes.
A few minutes after it stopped, I get a text from Jo Forrest, who is down here in Chicago. She writes, “Are you all right?” I text back, “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” She said “The huge storm.”
On the other side of this thin peninsula—about ten miles away—the storm had become the most violent in living memory. Eighty-year-old people don’t remember a fiercer storm. One-hundred-mile-an-hour winds took down hundreds of 100-year-old trees. It was just devastating. Ten miles away. No one died.
Power was out for days. A hundred people took refuge in the Glen Arbor Town Hall, a certified Red Cross shelter.
There’s a fancy restaurant in Glen Arbor. It’s called Blu—B-L-U—I guess because it’s right on Lake Michigan, right in the middle of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore Park. It’s haute cuisine, very expensive. My wife wants me to take here there, but I can’t afford it. Paul Chamberlain is the owner and chef of the restaurant called Blu.
When the power went out, he had a refrigerator full of the finest food in western Michigan. So what does he do? He takes responsibility for what is not his own. He takes all this great food and his wait staff over to Town Hall and whips up a gourmet feast for 100 storm refugees. For free. If they had to pay for it, this meal would have cost every last person about $50. After dinner, the refugees pass a pitcher and take up a collection to give the servers a little gratuity, but they turn around and donate the money straight to the Red Cross.
There are some wonderful people in the world who are instinctively willing to take responsibility for what does not inherently belong to them. If you are in need, you are my priority. If you are wounded, you are mine to heal. If you are broken, you are mine to mend.
So what do you think is the greatest American novel of all time: Moby Dick, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, or The Grapes of Wrath. It’s not a popular choice but I’ll go with The Grapes of Wrath.
Do you remember the fallen preacher Jim Casy The Grapes of Wrath? He’s given up the Bible and taken up the bottle, but he’s something of a hero nonetheless. His theology doesn’t sound exactly like Orthodox theology, but maybe he’s onto something anyway. He says,
Anyways, I’ll tell you one more thing I thought out; an’ from a preacher it’s the most unreligious thing, and I can’t be a preacher no more because I thought it an I believe it…I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God and Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men and all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men and all women got one big soul ever’body’s a part of. Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an all of a suddent—I knowed it. I knowed it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.
And then by the end of the story, of course, the fallen preacher Jim Casy almost persuades us. It’s the most beautiful if shocking conclusion in American literature.
The young mother Rosasharn, after famine, desertion, unemployment, and starvation, after watching her still-born child float down the flooded creek in a crate, still gives the only thing she has left, the milk of her body, and she never asks if he is her neighbor.
In 1988, a playwright named Frank Galati turned Mr. Steinbeck’s novel into a play. It debuted at the Steppenwolf Theater here in Chicago. It went to Broadway after Chicago; that’s where I saw it. It was one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen. Gary Sinise played Tom Joad, in Chicago and New York. When you see Rosasharn clutch that starving black man to her breast as if he were her own child, you just can never forget.
When you read that story, or see it on the stage, you get to thinkin’. Maybe all men and all women got one big soul ever’body’s a part of. We set there thinkin it, and all of suddent we knowed it. We knowed it so down deep that it was true. And we’ll always know it. I hope. I hope.
Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), p. 48.
Amy Hubbell, “Storm Stories,” Leelanau Enterprise, August 6, 2015.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking, 1939, 1989), pp. 32-33.