Proper 10, Year C
July 15, 2001
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck
I’ve always been a bit intrigued when I see the name “anonymous” turn up on a donor list. You’ve probably seen these lists in alumni magazines or symphony orchestra programs. And invariably “anonymous” makes his or her presence known. I always wonder just what motivates someone to give anonymously. Is it to brag to a few close friends about your wonderful act of selflessness? Is it to feel even better about yourself because you’re not seeking public recognition for a good deed? Or are there some people who just genuinely and quietly give from their hearts? I certainly can’t recall ever giving money to a school or a church or any other non-profit organization anonymously. In fact, I must admit that when I get the issue of my college alumni magazine that lists all the donors from the past year, I immediately turn to find my name. It better be spelled right and it had better be listed in the correct financial bracket. Of course, if they mistakenly put me in a higher category, that’s fine.
But after I’ve scrolled down the page and have finally found my name, I can’t help but question my own motivation for giving. Have I given because I truly care about the mission of the institution? Have I given because I want to see my name in print? Have I given because I want others to see my name in print? Have I given because I want a tax write-off? Truth be told, it’s probably a combination of all of these. And I find it helpful to reflect upon the question of how my giving would differ if it were all done anonymously. Would I give to the same organizations? Would I give more or less? What exactly is my real motivation for giving? Among other things, the parable of the Good Samaritan is about how we act when we think no one is watching us. It’s about the spirit of giving anonymously of ourselves whether that’s financially, physically, or emotionally. It’s about serving others simply because we’re grateful for what God has given us and we feel a responsibility to share that sense of thankfulness. It’s about loving our neighbors as ourselves. And finally, the parable of the Good Samaritan is about throwing off cultural norms or expected behaviors and acting out of love for one another. The priest and the Levite don’t stop to help the traveler because Jewish law forbade contact with a dying person for reasons of ritual impurity. Through this parable, Jesus is telling this lawyer, this man concerned with strict adherence to the Law, that there is an overriding principle at work. Something more important than laws or the perceptions of others, and that principle is love for God and love for one another.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a familiar story. It’s depicted in a stained glass window in this building, which I encourage you to seek out sometime. And the phrase being a “Good Samaritan” has passed into popular language, usually referring to someone who has done a good deed. The person who pulls off to the side of the road to help a stranded motorist is called a Good Samaritan. The Boy Scout who escorts an elderly woman across the street is called a Good Samaritan. But this usage trivializes what’s really at stake here. The underlying question is about motivation. Obviously, no matter how small or simple the gesture, to do a good deed for someone is nice. But Jesus asks us to confront our real motivation for doing something that is considered good. Why do we choose to act a particular way? What is our motivation? Is it to make ourselves feel good or look good in the eyes of others? Or is it done out of the same spirit of sacrificial love that Christ exemplifies? Are we treating each person we encounter as Christ himself? This parable leads to many questions because it demands that we look at ourselves and question our own motives.
I sometimes wonder if the priest and the Levite would have acted differently if they’d known someone was watching them? Maybe not, because of their strict adherence to the law. But if they didn’t stop because they couldn’t be bothered, even though they knew it would have been the right thing to do, maybe they would have acted differently if they knew they were being watched. This may be like contributing money to a charity only if you’re certain that your contribution will show up on the donor list. In this case, the motivation for giving is not exclusively a pure one. But it’s a start, a step in the right direction.
Maybe it would be helpful if we lived our lives as if we were being watched. Not out of fear, as if a video surveillance camera was pointed in our direction to catch us doing something wrong. But out of an awareness that our motivations and actions in this life do matter. And actually, this isn’t so far from the truth. Because the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” is watching us. And this begs the question, would you act differently at work if you knew the boss was always watching you? It might be uncomfortable but there would certainly be an added degree of accountability. Maybe you wouldn’t take that extra half hour for lunch or make all of those personal phone calls. And who knows, the boss might actually be impressed with your work. I’m not implying that God is an overbearing micromanager. But God is intimately aware of our inward motivations and outward actions. Which is one reason why God’s forgiveness is such a wonderful and valuable gift to all of us.
We shouldn’t act charitably toward our neighbor for fear of God’s retribution but we should act this way because we are commanded by Christ to love God and neighbor. And if we spend some time acting as if we’re being watched, hopefully, in time, our outward actions will inform our inward motivations. Being watched will not seem like a burden, acting kindly towards others will flow out of our hearts from our passion to obey Christ, and we will live in harmony with God and one another. Jesus points to the ancient words of the Hebrew Bible that make up the greatest commandment: “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.” That’s it. It’s simple really. The heart of the Gospel message is love. If we can appropriate that into our lives there is no need to do anything but give anonymously.
So, maybe we should all try to give anonymously to an organization (I guess I’d have to suggest the church). Or do an act of kindness that no one except God will ever know about. Then check your motivation for doing so, reflect on it, and ask God for the heart of an anonymous donor with all the right intentions. Jesus points to the Samaritan and challenges us all to “Go and do likewise.”
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2001