From the September/October, 1999 issue of Touchstone

Looking Beyond Ourselves by Thomas S. Buchanan

Looking Beyond Ourselves

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
—Luke 10:25–29

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, there were two people who, upon seeing the half-dead man on the side of the road, passed by on the other side. One was a priest and the other was a Levite. Although it is certainly true that they were acting callously, it could also be that they were overzealous for keeping the law. In Lev. 21:1 we read that clergy were not allowed to defile themselves by touching a dead body. A priest or Levite, seeing a man who looked to be dead lying on the side of the road, might not wish to take the chance that he was, in fact, dead. This could be a matter of having meticulous concern not to violate the law. Of course, that would hardly make him a good neighbor.

When my daughter was young, her mother and I taught her to make the sign of the cross over her body when she prayed. The reason for this ancient practice, we told her, was to remember that cross stained by blessed blood when Christ our Savior died. We told her that she should identify with that cross when she prayed and that, by crossing herself, she should be reminded that she too must take up her cross daily. Furthermore we told her that she should never be ashamed of that life-giving cross because it is the great symbol of our faith.

She had no objection to this practice (few one-year-olds do), but I was disheartened when a while later I saw that, to my firstborn child, “crossing herself” meant a single gesture of taking her index finger and, most emphatically, pointing at her chest.

Of course, being a typical child of her age, her idea of the universe was a sphere with a radius of about ten feet, with herself at the center. For that reason, this physical expression of prayer was, in actuality, a good indicator of her theology.

Most of us outgrow this view of the universe. That is, our worlds become much larger as we mature. However, the epicenter generally does not change. The relocation of the center of the universe away from ourselves, I believe, is the mark of a saint.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest looked at the beaten man and, if he thought about helping him at all, probably asked himself, “Will this interfere with my religious obligation?” or “I have God’s work to do. Should I take a chance on this man?” It is easy to let our actions and devotion be centered around a misguided idea of the importance of our place in the universe.

Years ago there was a study done in which seminarians were placed (one at a time) in a small office and asked to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were then told that they were expected to give that address in the next building, which they could reach by walking through a short alley. Lying in the alley was a man pretending to be in mortal pain. Few of the seminarians stopped to see if the man was all right, especially those who were told that they were late for their sermons. Most of them literally stepped over him.

It is not an easy thing to look beyond ourselves in our prayers and our actions, even when we have the best intentions. It is about as easy as changing the universe. But it is possible. Only by doing so can we honestly love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might.

Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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