The Shame Of A Lowered Aim
Someone has said that the Parable of the Good Samaritan contains the three basic philosophies of life in this world: “beat ’em up, pass ’em up, help ’em up.” Which philosophy of life is yours? Today, I would like to help us frame an answer to that question by looking at the parable. For here we meet four individuals and one group.
The first individual we meet is the traveler, the one who was beaten, robbed and left for dead. Now to be perfectly frank with you, I can’t muster too much sympathy for this fellow; a little, but not a lot. No one deserves to be beaten like that; true, but let’s do remember that this fellow deliberately chose to walk the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was known to be a very dangerous stretch of highway. You traveled there at your own risk. On both sides of the road were rock outcroppings and caves—perfect places for bandits hide. In fact, in the time in which Jesus told this story this section of road was called “The Bloody Pass. The journey from Jerusalem to Jericho was, at best, a day’s journey—at worst, a journey you would never complete. There was terrible danger on that road, and everyone knew it. Yet this man chose to make that journey and he chose to go it alone. In a very real sense then, he was asking for trouble, and therefore, I find it hard to be completely sympathetic. I know. I need to work on my sense of Christian charity a little bit, don’t I? Ah, but enough about the traveler.
Next in the story we encounter the group. I refer, of course, to the thieves. No excuse can be manufactured to justify their conduct. Their philosophy in life was “beat ’em up.” Take what you can get when you can get it, no matter how you have to get it. I don’t care if they had unhappy childhoods or came from dysfunctional families or were discriminated against or suffered abuse along the way or grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. You can’t justify or rationalize away what they did. Not only were they highwaymen, they were also sadists. They seized this traveler, robbed him of his possessions, stripped him of his clothing, beat him mercilessly, and then left him dying by inches by the side of the road. They were selfish brutes—nothing more than that. They are like those who would stab an elderly lady to get her rings, or those who would murder a young medical student in order to steal his car, or those who would shoot an employee in a 7-11 in order to get what was in the cash drawer. I’m not going to say any more about these thieves because we hear too much about these kinds of people as it is. Suffice it to say that people who live with this “beat ’em up” philosophy of life—take what you can get when you can get it—those people are going to have to face their Maker, and I don’t want to be nearby when it happens.
The second individual who appears on the scene is the priest. Notice what Jesus says of him: “By chance there came down a certain priest that way, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. This man has given religion a bad name for 2,000 years. What he did is tragically true of many others within the company of Christianity. There are always phonies among the faithful. Yet having acknowledged that, let me go on to say that in our society, when people are in trouble, they most frequently go to the church for help. When individuals or families find themselves in deepest difficulty, the minister is still the one they most frequently call for assistance. So, even though there are turncoats among the ranks of the faithful, and even though they have given a bad name to the church, the church is still the single most influential institution in all of society and in all of human history when it comes to dealing with the needs of this tough and troubling world of ours. There are a lot of people in this life who operate with the “pass ’em up” philosophy. They respond with apathy and indifference to the hurts and the needs of the world. Not the church. And certainly not this church. Here we care. Oh, do we ever! “Pass ’em up?” Not on your life, and not by our Christ.
Which brings me to the third individual we encounter in this story, and this is the one with whom I am particularly concerned today. I refer, of course, to the Levite. Listen very carefully to what Jesus says of him: “And likewise, a Levite when he was at the place came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.” That’s different from what Jesus had to say about the priest. Jesus is suggesting that the Levite heard the man moaning at the side of the road, and that there was within him an impulse to help to provide assistance. Jesus says that he crossed the road, which is something that the priest did not do. The Levite clearly was moved in his heart to do something good for this half-dead traveler. But, as he made his way toward the man he paused, and that pause ruined everything, because in that brief pause the generous thoughts that were in his heart died. Maybe in that moment he thought to himself: “Suppose the robbers are still around? I might be the next victim.” Or maybe he thought: “That fellow is too far gone, I probably can’t really help him.” Or maybe he thought: “I’ve got important matters to attend to in Jericho. If I stop now, I may get so tangled up in this situation I’ll never get loose.” I don’t know what he thought, but whatever he thought when he came across the road and looked at the beaten traveler, that second thought killed the goodness within him. That’s what I call the shame of a lowered aim.
It happens to us. We hear a plea, and we decide to go and render assistance. We hear about a need, and we reach for our wallets. We learn of someone who is lonely, and we say: “I’ll go and visit.” We learn of someone who is ignorant, and we say: “I’ll teach him, and give that person the benefit of my experience.” The church initiates a major effort or campaign, and we resolve to do our part. We hear the call to become a member of the church, a member of the Lord’s forever family, and the urge to commitment rises within us. Then, we pause, and second thoughts invade our brains. The good intent dies within us, replaced by thoughts about ourselves, how this will impact our time, our talent, our comfort, our entertainment, our safety, our wallet. And, we never do what we intended to do. We know the shame of a lowered aim.
How do we put it? “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And, what is a good intention? A good intention is a good deed never done because it was strangled to death by a second thought. I know some of those second thoughts are good—they can check us from doing hasty things. They can keep us from passion and anger and foolishness run amuck in our lives. But it has been my observation that most of the passion second thoughts keep us from is the passion to do what is right. The anger they stifle is usually righteous indignation. The foolishness they prevent is the discipleship of those who want to be fools for Christ’s sake. All too often they lead us to the shame of a lowered aim.
One day Walter picked up his friend, Arthur, in his car and drove 25 miles out of town to an area that was uninhabited—just a few horses grazing, a couple of abandoned farmhouses in view. Walter said to Arthur: “I’m going to build something quite wonderful here, and when I build it the value of this property is going to go up. I would like to suggest that you buy some of this land right now.” Well, Arthur knew that his friend, Walter, was smart. His first thought was that this might be a good opportunity. Then he began to think about the logistics of it all, about how far it was out of town, and how much it was going to cost. So, Arthur said: “No, I’m not interested.” So Walter drove his friend, Arthur, home. And Arthur, Art Linkletter, never bought any of that ground where his friend, Walter, Walt Disney, built what we now know as Disneyland. First thoughts killed by second thoughts. The shame of a lowered aim.
The Levite came part way across the road, and looked. The urge was there. The first thought was good. But then came the second thought, safety first. He lowered his aim and as a result, the Levite has been an object of scorn and shame for 2000 years.
The last person to appear on the scene is the Good Samaritan. I am convinced that the nobility of the Good Samaritan rests upon more than his generosity. I think his nobility, his grandeur of spirit rests on the fact that he kept his aim high. He wouldn’t be defeated by second thoughts. He built his life not on the philosophy of “beat ’em up” or “pass ’em up”, but on the philosophy of “help ’em up”. He kept his aim high. He kept his ideals intact. He kept his eyes upon the prize.
Remember please, that he encountered the same set of circumstances as did the Levite. He must have had the same thoughts as he crossed the road to the beaten man: “Maybe the robbers are still around” … “This fellow is too far gone to help” … “I’ve got other pressing matters requiring my attention.” Those thoughts must have come to him just as they had come to the Levite. The difference? The Samaritan defeated those second thoughts and went on to do his heroic deed.
Not long ago I completed reading the stories of all those people in American history who have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor this nation can bestow. In the military, junior officers always salute senior officers first. A captain salutes a major before the major returns that salute. But in our military, everyone, no matter the rank, everyone including 5-star generals, salute holders of the Congressional Medal of Honor first. As I read the stories of these people, a common thread could be seen all the way through. They did what they did on the impulse of the moment. They laid aside caution. They laid aside thoughts of themselves. They laid aside their own safety to do something heroic for someone else. I wish we had a medal like that for Christians. If we did, surely on the front of the medal would be emblazoned the symbol of the Good Samaritan. And if we had a medal like that, I would want to give one to Ruby Bridges. Do you know her story?
Dr. Robert Coles tells her story. Dr. Coles is a distinguished psychiatrist, teacher, and author at Harvard University. His book Children in Crisis, won the Pulitzer Prize. It was his interest in children which led him in 1960 to travel to New Orleans where the first school integration was to occur under order of a federal judge. On November 14, 1960, a little girl named Ruby Bridges became the first black child to go to a white school in that city. It was the William T. Franse Elementary School. Ruby Bridges was in the first grade. She was six years old. When she approached the school, flanked by U.S. marshals, she had to walk down a corridor of hatred. People lined the way shouting obscenities and threatening her with death. When she got into the school, she discovered that she was the only child there. The white parents had kept their children at home.
When Robert Coles saw her going through that kind of experience, he called her parents and asked for permission to speak to Ruby. He then met with her twice a week for the next several months. She never displayed signs of fear of anxiety. Day after day, she had to walk that verbal gauntlet to get to school, but she never hesitated. Her teachers indicated that she seemed bright, happy, well-adjusted. Dr. Coles got her to draw some pictures, knowing that sometimes children express their deepest thoughts better in pictures than in words. No evidence of fear or anxiety.
One day as Dr. Coles watched Ruby walk through those screaming people and into the school, he noticed that she seemed to be talking to them. When Coles inquired later about that, Ruby replied: “I wasn’t talking to them. I was praying for them.” Coles was surprised and he asked her why she was praying for them. Ruby answered: “Because I want to be like Jesus. Jesus said ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do!'” Coles later wrote: “As a psychiatrist, how am I supposed to account for that?”
Ruby Bridges never had a course in Bible or theology. She never had lessons in courage or zeal. But she knew God in Jesus Christ. She may have been just six years old, but she took her stand for the Lord in the midst of a hostile world because she knew that God was with her. She never fell victim to the shame of a lowered aim.
Maybe you’re wondering why I am so concerned today about keeping ideals intact and holding our aim high in life. It’s because on the second Sunday in September, 1968; 27 years ago, I began my life in the ministry. Twenty-seven years ago, Jesus said to me what Hamlet said to Horatio: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, then absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh and cruel world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.”
I hold Jesus in my heart. I’ve tried to tell His story. There has been pain. Yes, sometimes incredible pain along the way. But for twenty-seven years now I’ve tried to tell His story. Every week I go to my desk, and I pray, I study, I struggle, I work, I hurt, I weep, I write as I try to come up with some new way to tell the story of my Jesus. It’s the greatest love story the world has ever known—a story which would lead a statue to weep if only it could hear. After I have produced what I can, I climb into this pulpit and offer to you what I have given and what has been given to me. I watch you as I do that. I see the expressions on your faces. I see your moods change. I see some of you nod in assent. I see the light of conscience flash in some of your eyes. I see that some of you are moved to deep emotion by the story of our Lord. Yes, I see your faces, but I can’t see what is happening inside of you. And when it’s all over, I’ll always wonder: “Did anything change in your heart? Did you let Jesus Christ into your life?. Did you commit to aim to live in his love and to live with his love?” Or, like the Levite, will you just catch just a glimpse and feel the urge to respond but then let your second thoughts lower your aim and let you walk away from church today exactly as you came?
So here I draw my breath in pain to tell the story of Jesus, and I will keep telling it as long as God gives me grace to preach. But I’ll always wonder,
How is it with you?