Which of these, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” [The expert in religious law] said,“The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “God and do likewise” (Luke 10:36, 37).

You never quite know what’s going on under the hood of your car. Or at least, I don’t. Sure, I check the oil and the fluids, but otherwise, I depend on the car’s computer to light up one of those icons on the dash and alert me to trouble. And every 3000 and 30,000 miles a mechanic tells me what I need to know and do.

Murphy’s Law being a constant in the universe, it just makes sense that some recent car trouble I had was a) not something the computer would or could detect and b) happened just prior to regularly scheduled maintenance. It also struck at a very inconvenient place and time.

I won’t bore you with the details, because the specifics of my car’s ills are not the point of this post. Instead, I want to praise all the folks who were good neighbors to me in my distress. There was ever faithful and helpful Danny, from my church, who dropped what he was doing on a Sunday afternoon to come help me out and stuck with me till the problem was resolved. The lady and her son who saw me struggling with the gear shift and offered to see what they could do. The rail-thin, bearded guy in the beat-up car who both suggested a solution (“have you checked the linkage?”) and was concerned that I was standing in the heat outside of the convenience store where the trouble happened rather than going inside to cool off. And of course, the young woman behind the counter at the store, who offered to keep calling/texting her mechanic boyfriend (Sammy) until he showed up and fixed the problem (temporarily, it turned out, but enough for me to get back to Starkville). Sammy wouldn’t accept any compensation for his work; I guess the good feeling of helping out a neighbor was enough.

After being so blessed with the assistance of both a friend and strangers, I began to reflect on Jesus’ call to us all to be neighbors. The essence of neighborliness, our Lord tells us, is to show mercy. That’s easy when we encounter those in distress through no fault of their own; they were simply going about their business and were set upon by life’s troubles like robbers ambushing a traveler. When neighborliness sometimes becomes next to impossible to practice or even stomach is when we seek to help and are rebuffed or even when we become the target of hurtful words or actions. Mercy in those cases sometimes succumbs to the desire for revenge. The godly quality of refraining from giving someone what he or she deserves gives way to the thirst for retribution, a right reserved in Scripture only to God (Romans 12:19).

For instance, I heard the story recently of a teenage boy whose mom had died. Another boy, who for some reason despised the first kid, said to him: “You’re going to hell, just like your mother.” In his grief, the bereft teen wanted to punch out his cruel peer.

But what would a good neighbor do? Would he or she not refrain from violence and instead seek to understand the source of the hateful words, such as some pain in the speaker’s own life?

I wonder if it isn’t always better to show mercy. Because you never know what’s going on “under the hood.” 

© 2010 Tom Cheatham